Lessons from the Royal Airforce’s Past

At this time, as the Royal Air Force faces deep cuts in its personnel strength, aircraft numbers and overall capabilities, it is useful to look back as the service’s past. It is arguable that what has been achieved in the past can provide lessons for the way that a new slim-line RAF might reinvent itself. Right from its inception in April 1918 on the basis of the preceding Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, the RAF prided itself on the highest levels of professionalism right across the service, and therefore eschewed the notion of elite units that were so favoured by allies and enemies such as France, Italy and Germany, for the RAF deemed it invidious to categorise a few squadrons as excellent and the majority as adequate. Thus the RAF travelled through the financially straitened times of the 1920s and 1930s as a small but highly professional service, and then entered its period of expansion before World War II with every intention of maintaining its high standards.

Thus the first-line squadrons Bomber Command, Coastal Command and Fighter Command, together with those of the smaller commands, were all good in terms of their training and performance, and in was on this basis that Bomber Command developed into a massive night bombing arm, Coastal Command emerged into an effective weapon against the German submarine arm, and Fighter Command won the Battle of Britain and then spread its capabilities over the northern part of German-occupied Europe. The technical development of the service’s equipment then combined with the need to aid the main strength of branches such as Bomber Command to demand the creation of small numbers of more specialised squadrons to get the best out of the latest electronic equipment, use special weapons and, in the case of the pathfinder squadrons, lead bomber squadrons to greater accuracy by marking their targets for them.

So it was specialised rather than elite squadrons that began to appear in the growing list of squadrons operated by the RAF and dominion air forces operating under RAF control on Europe. The best known of these was No. 617 Squadron, which was created to attack German dams with Avro Lancaster bombers modified to carry Dr Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb’, but others also emerged with capabilities that were exploited for special tasks.

Operation JerichoOperation ‘Jericho’, for example, was a low-level air attack on Amiens prison in German-occupied France undertaken on 18 February 1944 by 19 de Havilland Mosquito FB.Mk VI aircraft led by Group Captain Percy Charles ‘Pick’ Pickard. This very dangerous mission was flown by 18 aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No. 487 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 464 Squadron and RAF’s No. 21 Squadron, which were all part of No. 140 Wing in Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force; there was also one unarmed Mosquito of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. After Taking off from RAF Hunsdon, the Mosquito fighter-bombers were escorted by Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers of the RAF’s Nos 174, 198 and 245 Squadrons, and the Mosquito PR aeroplane circled above the prison, filming the attack and reporting results to the attacking force. The aim of ‘Jericho’ was to free members of the French resistance forces, of whom 12 were scheduled for execution on the following day, as these were considered vital for the implementation of the Allied plans for sabotage in the Normandy area by French resistance forces immediately after the ‘Overlord’ invasion scheduled for June 1944. The Mosquitoes’ bombs breached the prison’s walls and damaged the guards’ quarters, and although 102 of the 717 prisoners were killed and another 84 injured during the bombing, 258 others escaped, this latter figure including 79 resistance fighters and political prisoners including Raymond Vivant and the 12 resistance members scheduled for execution on the following day. The British lost two Mosquito and two Typhoon aircraft in the raid, and the aircrew losses were three men killed and another three captured.

Another classic attack in the same mould was Operation ‘Carthage’ on 21 March 1944. This was another low-level attack, in this instance on the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen in German-occupied Denmark. Led by Group Captain R. N. Bateson and involving 17 Mosquito FB. Mk VI fighter-bombers of Nos 21, 464 and 487 Squadrons as well as one aeroplane of the Film Production Unit, the raid was launched from RAF Fersfield in Norfolk at 08.40, the Mosquito crews having been briefed to deliver their attack, at a height of only 100 ft (30 m), on the Shellhaus building, a six-storey unit accommodating the headquarters of the Gestapo in Denmark. It was in this, Danish resistance leaders had reported, that 38 of their operatives were being held on the top floor, and German plans were being completed for a series of mass arrests to paralyse the Danish underground movement. With an escort of 25 North American Mustang Mk III long-range fighters of No. 64 Squadron, the Mosquito aircraft flew for two hours across the North Sea, making landfall as planned. At about 12.00, and in weather that was now poor, the attackers reached Copenhagen, whose streets were thick with traffic and people. Such was the surprise achieved by the attackers that Flak batteries, only some 500 yards (460 m) away from the target building, were still covered with tarpaulins. Bombs from the first wave of Mosquito warplanes immediately hit the target building, Wing Commander P. A. Kleboe flying so low that he crashed into a flag pole. One crew reported seeing the bombs of the aircraft ahead of them entering the Gestapo building between the first and second storeys. Struck by eight 500-lb (227-kg) bombs, the building was left well on fire, 55 Gestapo personnel and 47 Danish employees were killed together with eight prisoners, 18 of the 26 prisoners survived to escape, and the organisation’s records were largely destroyed. Three other Mosquito aircraft failed to return, one of them crashing tragically into the Jeanne d’Arc school and causing 125 totally innocent casualties including 88 children. Even so, the attack had achieved its aim. The Mustang fighter force, which suffered two losses to Flak, encountered no air opposition.

An altogether different type of specialised operation was ‘Catechism’ on 12 November, which resulted in the German loss of the battleship Tirpitz. The very existence of this powerful capital ship in Norwegian waters was an impediment to the British activities of the Home Fleet over a considerable period, and a constant threat to the Allied convoys taking war supplies to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangyel’sk via the Arctic convoy route round the North Cape. While in northern Norwegian waters Tirpitz had been attacked on 16 occasions (six times by RAF bombers and 10 times by Fleet Air Arm attack aircraft) between 28 January 1942 and 29 October 1944. By October 1944 the German battleship had been moved some 200 miles (320 km) south from her base in the Altenfjord, and now lay in the bay of Håkøybotn within the Tromsøfjord, about 3 miles (4.8 km) west of the city of Tromsø. On 29 October a force of 38 Avro Lancaster heavy bombers, operating from a Soviet base and each carrying one 12,000-lb (5443-kg) ‘Tallboy’ penetration bomb, set off in Operation ‘Obviate’ to attack Tirpitz, which was damaged at the stern by a near miss that was the best the RAF bombers could manage in adverse bombing conditions of patchy cloud. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, commanding RAF Bomber Command, decided that another raid was in order, and ‘Catechism’ was launched from RAF Lossiemouth as soon as the weather permitted, on 12 November, by 31 Lancaster bombers of Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons, each bomber armed with a single ‘Tallboy’, and one film unit aeroplane of the RAAF’s No. 463 Squadron, under the command of Group Captain James Brian Tait. Poor liaison amongst the German armed forces meant that German fighter cover from Bardufoss did not appear, and the Lancaster bombers were able to bomb without hindrance. Tirpitz was hit by three of the bombs: one was disrupted by glancing off turret armour, but the other two smashed through the ship and blew out her bottom. Another three bombs detonated under the water close alongside and caused more damage. The battleship capsized and came to rest with her superstructure on the bottom of the Tromsøfjord, and of the battleship’s crew of about 1,900 men, 1,000 or so were trapped inside her, only some 85 being rescued after a hole had been cut in the ship’s exposed bottom. Tirpitz had previously survived some 19 bomb hits, including one 12,000-lb (5443-kg) and five 1,600-lb (726-kg) weapons, in air raids which had cost the British 13 RAF and 19 Fleet Air Arm aircraft.

The Battle of the North Cape – Britain’s last capital ship battle

In the first weeks of 2011 we are less than two years from the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the North Cape, which was the last battle fought by the Royal Navy against a capital ship, in this instance the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst. With her sister ship Gneisenau, Scharnhorst was one of the two German major warships completed in the late 1930s to a design that is generally regarded as being of the battle-cruiser type because the main armament comprised nine 280-mm (11.03-in) L/54.5 guns in three triple turrets essentially similar to those carried by the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ class of ‘pocket-battleships’. However, with a standard displacement of 32,100 tons and protection that was in essence to battleship standards in terms of its arrangement and armour thicknesses, the ships were designed to be upgunned at the earliest possible time to battleship standard by the replacement of the original primary armament by three turrets each carrying two 380-mm (14.96-in) L/47 guns: the two ‘Bismarck’ class battleships were each fitted with four of these turrets. In the event the ‘Scharnhorst’ class ships were not upgraded, and it is interesting to speculate how the Battle of the North Cape might have bee fought had Scharnhorst possessed heavier armament. There is little reason to doubt that the German battle-cruiser would still have been sunk, but in the process she might have been able to inflict significantly greater damage on the British ships involved.

The Battle of the North Cape on 25/26 December 1943, fought in the Arctic Ocean to the north of German-occupied Norway, resulted from the British ‘FV’ operation by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s Home Fleet to cover the RA.55A and JW.55B convoys plying from and to ports in the northern part of the USSR, and the German response to the passage of these convoys with their ‘Ostfront’ (east front) naval operation. On 12 December the British JW.55A convoy of 19 laden ships had departed Liverpool and reached the Kola Inlet on 20 December, and then the White Sea and the port of Arkhangyel’sk on 22 December. The Western Local Escort Force that supported the convoy between 12 and 15 December comprised the minesweepers Cockatrice and Harrier. The ocean escort from 12 to 15 December took the form of the destroyer Westcott, Norwegian corvette Acanthus, and minesweeper Speedwell, which were supplemented between 15 and 21 December by Captain I. M. R. Campbell’s escort group (destroyers Milne, Ashanti, Matchless, Meteor, Musketeer, Opportune, Virago and Canadian Athabaskan). The Eastern Local Escort Force that provided reception support between 20 and 22 December comprised the Soviet destroyers Gromky, Grozny and Kuybyshev, three Soviet minesweepers and the British minesweepers Hussar and Halcyon.

British naval cover for the convoy’s passage was provided by Vice Admiral R. L. Burnett’s cruiser force. This comprised Norfolk (eight 8-in/203-mm guns), and Belfast and Sheffield (each 12 6-in/152-mm guns), and distant cover was the responsibility of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s detachment of his own Home Fleet with the battleship Duke of York (10 14-in/356-mm guns), cruiser Jamaica (12 6-in/152-mm guns) and destroyers Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion and Norwegian Stord; these latter ships, escorted by the Soviet destroyer Kuybyshev, reached the Kola Inlet between 16 and 18 December but then sailed for Akureyri, Iceland, to refuel. Submarine cover off the North Cape was provided by Sirdar and then Syrtis.

In an effort to achieve an interception, U-277, U-354, U-387 and U-636 had established a patrol line to the east of the Bjørnøya Passage: here U-636 located and for a short time managed to shadow some of the escort vessels during 18 December, but was unable to close on the convoy.

The JW.55B convoy, also of 19 laden ships, departed Loch Ewe on 20 December, its Western Local Escort Force comprising the corvettes Borage and Wallflower, and minesweepers Hound and Hydra. The convoy was supported by Captain J. A. McCoy’s escort group (destroyers Onslow, Onslaught, Orwell, Scourge, Impulsive and Canadian Haida, Huron and Iroquois) bolstered by the destroyers Whitehall and Wrestler, corvettes Honeysuckle and Oxlip, and minesweeper Gleaner. The convoy was spotted and reported by German air reconnaissance on 22 December, but an attack by Junkers Ju 88 medium-range bombers on the following day was unable to break through the convoy’s anti-aircraft defences. On 25 December the escort was strengthened by the arrival of the destroyers Matchless, Musketeer, Opportune and Virago from the RA.55A’s convoy’s support element. The Eastern Local Escort Force from 28 December took the form of the Soviet destroyers Razyarenny, Razumny and Kuybyshev, four minesweepers and the British minesweepers Halcyon, Hussar and Speedwell. On 23 December the RA.55A convoy with 22 unladen ships (one had turned back) departed the Kola Inlet with Campbell’s escort group (destroyers Milne, Ashanti, Beagle, Matchless, Meteor, Musketeer, Opportune, Virago, Westcott and Canadian Athabaskan, corvettes Dianella, Poppy and Norwegian Acanthus, and minesweeper Seagull). The Eastern Local Escort Force between 22 and 24 December comprised the Soviet destroyers Razumny, Razyarenny and Kuybyshev, and minesweepers T-113, T-114 and T-116. Burnett’s cruiser covering force operated in the Barents Sea, and additional longer-range cover was provided by Fraser’s battleship force.

On 24 December U-601 of the ‘Eisenbart’ wolfpack, whose other boats were U-277, U-314, U-354, U-387, U-716 and U-957) was directed to the convoy by air reconnaissance, and established contact. U-601 and U-716, which fired one torpedo at a destroyer, were driven off by the escorts.

Meanwhile the Germans had been completing their ‘Ostfront’ plan, which had been launched when air reconnaissance reported JW.55B as ‘40 troop transports’. The Germans assumed that a major assault on their positions in northern Norway was imminent. Adolf Hitler had long been convinced that Norway was a ‘zone of destiny’ which the British, under the influence of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s plan to find and assault softer ‘underbelly’ targets as a way of avoiding the casualties inevitable in any major invasion of an area held by the greatest concentration of German forces, would see as a prime invasion target. The air reconnaissance estimate was later revised as the Germans decided that the sighting was more probably of a normal Arctic convoy with a strong escort (in fact 14 destroyers). The die was cast on 25 December, when the German naval high command ordered Konteradmiral Erich Bey’s German task force to sortie from its Norwegian base in the Altenfjord with Kapitän zur See Fritz Hintze’s battle-cruiser Scharnhorst and Kapitän zur See Rolf Johannesson’s 4th Zerstörerflottille (Z 29, Z 30, Z 33, Z 34 and Z 38).

The JW.55B convoy reached the Kola Inlet without loss on 29 December, and Soviet ships then escorted some of the merchant vessels into the White Sea. The RA.55A convoy reached the UK without loss on 1 January. On 31 December the following RA.55B convoy of eight unladen ships departed the Kola Inlet with local escort by the British minesweepers Halcyon, Hussar and Speedwell, ocean escort by Onslow, Impulsive, Onslaught, Orwell, Whitehall, Wrestler, and Canadian Haida, Huron and Iroquois, and finally the Western Local Escort Force minesweepers Orestes and Ready, and reached Loch Ewe on 8 January without loss.

At this time patrol line of eight U-boats was stretched out to the south from a point west of Bjørnøya, about mid-way between the Spitsbergen islands and northern Norway, and the Luftwaffe was scouring the area with aircraft. At the time Fraser and Burnett were informed by the Admiralty that Scharnhorst was out, the JW.55B convoy was moving east-north-east just to the south of Bjørnøya at 04.00 on 26 December, with Fraser’s force steaming north-east some 210 miles (340 km) to the south-west and Burnett’s force was heading south-west some 150 miles (240 km) to the east of the convoy, whose safety was Fraser’s primary concern.

The German squadron was heading north into a point between the converging courses of the two British forces, and the destroyers were finding it difficult to keep up with Scharnhorst in the deteriorating weather. In poor weather and heavy seas and with only minimal Luftwaffe reconnaissance to aid him, Bey was unable to locate the convoy and, believing that he had overshot his target and with his destroyers still finding it difficult to keep up with his battle-cruiser in the deteriorating weather, at 07.30 he ordered his destroyers to fan out on a search to the south-west. Thereafter Scharnhorst was on her own, being spotted on Belfast’s radar at 08.40. Anticipating the German attack, Fraser had diverted the convoy away to the north. The unaccompanied Scharnhorst encountered Burnett’s cruisers shortly after 09.00, and was illuminated by starshell at 09.24. Five minutes later, as she turned south, the German battle-cruiser was taken under fire by the three British cruisers at a range of nearly 13,000 yards (11900 m). While the German ship secured no hits on the cruisers, the latter hit the battle-cruiser twice, one shell destroying her radar controls and so leaving Scharnhorst relatively blind in a mounting snowstorm. Without radar, the battle-cruiser’s gunners were forced to aim on the optical basis of the British ships’ muzzle flashes. This was made more difficult because two of the British cruisers were using a new flashless powder. The German vessel hauled round to the north-east once she had distanced herself from the cruisers, and though the cruisers could at first follow this move on radar, in the conditions they could not maintain the same speed as Scharnhorst, so Burnett decided to keep his force between Scharnhorst and the convoy.

Now outgunned and apparently believing he was in action with a battleship, Bey ordered Scharnhorst to turn south in an attempt to distance himself from the pursuers. The sense of Burnett’s move became clear just after 12.00, when Scharnhorst was again picked up on radar. Both sides opened fire once more, the British cruisers coming off worse but persuading Bey to turn south, where Fraser’s force was awaiting him. As the opposing forces exchanged fire, Scharnhorst made hits on Norfolk, disabling one of her main gun turrets and also her radar. Following this exchange, Bey ordered Scharnhorst to follow a southerly course again to try to get around the cruisers and thus back toward the convoy. After several hours of southerly flight, pursued by Burnett’s cruisers, Scharnhorst was picked up on Duke of York’s radar at 16.17, and at 16.50 the German battle-cruiser was illuminated by starshell from the shadowing Belfast, whereupon Duke of York opened fire at a range of 11,920 yards (10900 m) with her 14-in (356-mm) guns; Jamaica also opened fire.

Caught between the fires of Fraser’s and Burnett’s forces, there was no escape for Scharnhorst, especially when the British battleship’s shells plunged into her at long range. Scharnhorst‘s ‘A’ turret was almost immediately disabled, and another salvo destroyed the ship’s hangar. Shortly after this, the cruisers Norfolk and Belfast also opened fire. While Bey was able to put some more distance between his vessel and the British ships, at 18.20 his ship’s fortunes turned for the worse when a shell pierced the armour belt and destroyed one of the boiler rooms. Scharnhorst’s speed fell and, now able to maintain only 22 kt, she was vulnerable to the attacks of the British destroyers. Five minutes later, in an increasingly desperate situation, Bey sent his final radio message to the German naval command, saying that he would fight his ship to the last shell.

At 18.50, destroyers detached from the RA.55A convoy’s escort closed Scharnhorst and obtained one torpedo hit on the battle-cruiser’s starboard side and three more on her port side. Despite this mauling, the battle-cruiser still maintained some 20 kt. The torpedo hits were followed by further successful salvoes from Duke of York and Norfolk, to which Scharnhorst returned fire with her remaining guns, scoring minor hits on a destroyer and near-misses on Duke of York. The British ships now deluged the battle-cruiser with fire, and the cruisers Jamaica and Belfast launched their remaining torpedoes at the slowing target. Scharnhorst’s end came when the British destroyers loosed a further 19 torpedoes at the ship. Scharnhorst was turned into a blazing wreck and sank at 19.45, only 36 of her 1,968-man complement being pulled from the freezing Arctic water, 30 of them by Scorpion and the other six by Matchless. Neither Bey nor Hintze were among those rescued, although they had both been seen in the water after the ship sank.

While the battle-cruiser should have been able to outgun all of her opponents except Duke of York, the early loss of her radar-assisted fire-control system combined with the weather conditions to leave the German ship at a significant disadvantage. However, like other major German surface vessels, Scharnhorst had shown herself to be magnificently designed and superbly built, for her destruction had required at least 13 14-in (356-mm) shell hits, about 12 hits from the cruisers, many smaller-calibre shell hits in the last stages of the battle, and 11 hits from the 55 torpedoes fired at her.

Late in the evening of 26 December, Fraser spoke to his officers on board Duke of York: ‘Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today.’

The Japanese defeat on Guadalcanal – a turning point of World War II

On 7 August 1942 Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s US 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal island in the Solomon islands group to the east of New Guinea. The Japanese had occupied the island in the preceding month as a location essential to the security of the outer defence perimeter they were establishing to shield their gains of late 1941 and early 1942. The Japanese believed that the island could be developed as a base from which the Allied lines of maritime communication across the Pacific (from the USA to New Zealand and Australia) could be interdicted, so preventing the build-up of forces for a riposte against the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. There followed a period of intense fighting not only on the island, but in the air above it and the waters surrounding it. Both sides ferried in reinforcements, but by a time late in 1942 the Americans had clearly gained the upper hand over Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army, whose remnants were fighting a bitter rearguard action.

The Japanese now planned to evacuate these remnants in the period from 1 February 1943. Planned and prepared materially from November 1942 at Rabaul, the headquarters of the Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific theatre, this ‘Ke’ operation had been authorised on 26 December 1942 following a period throughout November when the Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo continued to support further efforts to retake Guadalcanal. At the same time, however, lower-ranking staff officers began quietly to discuss the abandonment of the island after the last Japanese troops had been evacuated. Later in the month the War Ministry informed the Imperial General Headquarters that there was insufficient shipping to support both an effort to retake Guadalcanal and to transport strategic resources to maintain Japan’s economy and military forces. On 19 December, a delegation of Imperial General Headquarters staff officers, led by Colonel Joichiro Sanada, chief of the operations section, reached Rabaul on New Britain for discussions about future plans concerning New Guinea and Guadalcanal. General Hitoshi Imamura, commanding the 8th Area Army controlling Japanese army operations in New Guinea and the Solomon islands, did not directly recommend a withdrawal from Guadalcanal but laid out the difficulty of any further attempt to retake the island. Imamura also stated that any decision to withdraw should include plans to evacuate as many soldiers as possible.

Sanada returned to Tokyo on 25 December and suggested that Guadalcanal be abandoned without delay and priority be given to the campaign in New Guinea. The Imperial General Headquarters’ senior members agreed with Sanada’s recommendation on 26 December and ordered their staffs to begin drafting plans for the withdrawal from Guadalcanal and establishment of a new defence line in the central Solomon islands. On December 28, General Hajime Sugiyama and Admiral Osami Nagano, the army and navy chiefs-of-staff, personally informed Emperor Hirohito of the decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal, and on 31 December the emperor formally endorsed the decision, which was passed to the 8th Area Army and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet on 3 January. By 9 January the Combined Fleet and 8th Area Army staffs had completed designing the ‘Ke’ plan. This called for a battalion of army infantry to be landed by destroyer on Guadalcanal on about 14 January to act as a rear guard during the evacuation; the 17th Army to begin withdrawing to the western end of the island on 25/26 January; and an air superiority campaign to be started around the southern end of the Solomon islands on 28 January. The survivors of the 17th Army were then to be evacuated in three lifts by destroyers during the first week of February with a target completion date of 10 February. At the same time, Japanese air and naval assets would conduct conspicuous manoeuvres and minor attacks around New Guinea and the Marshall islands, together with deceptive radio traffic, in an effort to confuse the Allies about Japanese intentions. Yamamoto detailed the aircraft carriers Junyo and Zuiho, battleships Kongo and Haruna, and four heavy cruisers plus a destroyer screening force under Admiral Nobutake Kondo, commander of the 2nd Fleet, to provide distant cover for ‘Ke’ around Ontong Java in the northern part of the Solomon islands.

The evacuation runs were to be supported and carried out by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, consisting of the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kumano, light cruiser Sendai and 21 destroyers, the last being charged with the actual evacuation. Yamamoto expected that at least half of Mikawa’s destroyers would be sunk during the operation. Supporting the air superiority portion of the operation were the Japanese navy air force’s 11th Air Fleet under Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka and the Japanese army air force’s 6th Air Division under Lieutenant General Giichi Itahana, based at Rabaul with 212 and 100 aircraft respectively. In addition, 64 aircraft from the carrier Zuikaku were temporarily assigned to Rabaul. An additional 60 floatplanes from the Japanese navy air force’s ‘R’ Area Air Force, based at Rabaul and on Bougainville island and the Shortland islands, brought the total number of Japanese aircraft involved in the operation to 436. The Japanese warship and naval air units in the area formed the South-Eastern Area Fleet, commanded from Rabaul by Kusaka.

Opposing the Japanese and led by Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the Allied forces in the South Pacific Area, were the fleet carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, six escort carriers, three newer fast battleships, four older slow battleships, 13 cruisers and 45 destroyers. In the air, Brigadier General Nathan F. Twining’s US 13th AAF had 92 fighters and bombers, and Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy’s ‘Cactus Air Force’ on Guadalcanal had 81 aircraft. Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch was overall commander of Aircraft South Pacific. The air units of the fleet and escort carriers added another 339 aircraft. In addition, 30 heavy bombers were stationed in New Guinea with sufficient range to conduct missions over the Solomon islands. In total, the Allies had some 539 aircraft to oppose ‘Ke’.

By the first week of January, disease, starvation and combat had reduced the 17th Army on Guadalcanal to about 14,000 men, many of them too sick and/or malnourished to fight. The 17th Army possessed only three serviceable pieces of artillery, for which only minuscule supplies of ammunition were available. In contrast, the US commander on the island, Major General Alexander McC. Patch, fielded a combined force of US Army and US Marine Corps formations, designated as the XIV Corps, totalling 50,666 men. At Patch’s disposal were 167 pieces of artillery, including 75-, 105- and 155-mm (2.95-, 4.13- and 6.1-in) guns with plentiful stocks of ammunition.

On 1 January 1943 the Japanese changed their military radio communication codes, making it more difficult for Allied intelligence, which had heretofore partially broken Japanese radio ciphers, to divine Japanese intentions and movement. As January progressed, Allied reconnaissance and radio traffic analysis noted the build-up of ships and aircraft at Truk island in the Caroline islands, Rabaul and the Shortland islands. Allied analysts determined that the increased radio traffic in the Marshall islands was a deception meant to divert attention from an operation about to take place in either New Guinea or the Solomon islands. Allied intelligence personnel, however, misinterpreted the nature of the operation. On 26 January the Allied Pacific Command’s intelligence section informed Allied forces in the Pacific that the Japanese were preparing a new offensive, called ‘Ke’, in either the Solomon islands or New Guinea.

On 14 January a ‘Tokyo Express’ undertaking by nine destroyers delivered to Guadalcanal Major Keiji Yano’s ‘Yano’ Battalion as the ‘Ke’ rear guard. The battalion comprised 750 infantry and a battery of mountain guns with another 100 men. Accompanying the battalion was Lieutenant Colonel Kumao Imoto, representing the 8th Area Army, who was to deliver the evacuation order and plan to Hyakutake, whose 17th Army had not yet been informed of the decision to withdraw. Cactus Air Force and 13th AAF attacks on the nine destroyers during their return trip damaged Arashi and Tanikaze, and destroyed eight Japanese fighters escorting the convoy; five American aircraft were also shot down. Late on 15 January, Imoto reached the 17th Army’s headquarters at Kokumbona and informed Hyakutake and his staff of the decision to withdraw from the island. Grudgingly accepting the order on 16 January, the 17th Army staff communicated the evacuation plan to their forces on 18 January. The plan directed Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division, currently seeking to check a US offensive on ridges and hills in the interior of the island, to disengage and withdraw toward Cape Esperance on the western end of Guadalcanal from 20 January. The 38th Division’s retirement would be covered by Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama’s 2nd Division, which had been on Guadalcanal since October 1942, and the ‘Yano’ Battalion, both of which would then follow the 38th Division to the west.

Patch launched a new offensive just as the 38th Division began to withdraw from the inland ridges and hills that it had occupied. On 20 January Major General J. Lawton Collins’s 25th Division attacked Hills 87, 88 and 89, which constituted a ridge that dominated Kokumbona. Encountering much lighter resistance than anticipated, the Americans had taken the three hills by the morning of 22 January. Shifting forces to exploit the unexpected breakthrough, Collins quickly continued the advance and captured the next two targets, Hills 90 and 91, by the fall of night, placing the US forces in a position to isolate and capture Kokumbona, and so trap the 2nd Division. Reacting quickly to the situation, the Japanese hurriedly evacuated Kokumbona and ordered the 2nd Division to start an immediate retirement to the west. The Americans captured Kokumbona on January 23. Although some Japanese units were trapped between the American forces and destroyed, most of the 2nd Division’s survivors escaped. Still fearing a renewed and reinforced Japanese offensive, Patch committed the equivalent of only one regiment at a time to attack the Japanese forces west of Kokumbona, keeping the rest near Lunga Point to protect the airfield. The terrain west of Kokumbona favoured the Japanese efforts to delay the Americans as the rest of the 17th Army continued its withdrawal toward Cape Esperance. The US advance was hemmed into a corridor only 300 yards (270 m) to 600 yards (550 m) wide between the sea and the thick inland jungle and steep coral ridges. The ridges, running perpendicular to the coast, paralleled numerous streams and creeks that crossed the corridor in a large number of places. As the US army and US Marine Corps’ formations on Guadalcanal has suffered heavy losses from combat and disease, Patch reorganised his pursuit forces to create the so-called Composite Army-Marine Division, which grouped the US Army’s 147th and 182nd Infantry with the US Marine Corps’ 6th Marines, together with artillery from Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree’s Americal (sic) Division and Major General John Marston’s 2nd Marine Division; the rest of the Americal and 2nd Marine Divisions held the US perimeter east of the Matanikau river. On 26 January, as the 25th Division was executing a difficult north-westward swing toward Kokumbona, Brigadier General Alphonse de Carre’s CAM Division was advancing west and encountered the ‘Yano’ Battalion at the Marmura river. Yano’s troops temporarily halted the CAM Division’s advance and then withdrew slowly to the west over the next three days. On 29 January the ‘Yano’ Battalion retreated across the Bonegi river, where elements of the 2nd Division had constructed another defensive position. These Japanese defences at the Bonegi river checked the US advance for almost three days. On 1 February, with help from a shore bombardment by the destroyers Wilson and Anderson, the Americans successfully crossed the river but did not immediately press the advance westward.

In preparation for ‘Ke’, the Japanese tried to gain a measure of air superiority over Guadalcanal in an effort launched in the middle of January 1943. This campaign started with night harassment attacks on Henderson Field by anything between three and 10 aircraft, which caused little damage. On 20 January one Kawanishi H8K flying boat bombed Espíritu Santo, and five days later the Japanese navy air force despatched 58 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’ fighters on a daylight raid. Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy’s Cactus Air Force, based on Henderson Field and centred on Mulcahy’s own 2nd Marine Air Wing but including major USAAF and US Navy contributions, responded by launching eight Grumman F4F Wildcat and six Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, which shot down four A6M aircraft without loss. The Japanese launched a second large raid on 27 January by nine Kawasaki Ki-48 light bombers escorted by 74 Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa fighters of the Rabaul-based 6th Air Division. Twelve F4F, six P-38 and 10 Curtiss P-40 fighters from Henderson Field met the raid over Guadalcanal. In the resulting action, the Japanese lost six fighters while the Cactus Air Force lost one Wildcat, four P-40 and two P-38 fighters. The Kawasaki aircraft dropped their bombs on the US positions around the Matanikau river, causing little damage. Believing that the Japanese were beginning a major offensive in the southern part of the Solomon islands aimed at Henderson Field, Halsey responded, from 29 January, by sending a resupply convoy to Guadalcanal supported by most of his warship forces, separated into five task forces. These task forces included two fleet carriers, two escort carriers, three battleships, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers. Screening the approach of the transport convoy was Rear Admiral Thomas C. Giffen’s Task Force 18 with three heavy and three light cruisers, two escort carriers, and eight destroyers. A fleet carrier task force, centred on the carrier Enterprise, steamed about 250 miles (400 km) behind TF18. In addition to protecting the supply convoy, TF18 was charged with rendezvousing with a force of four US destroyers, stationed at Tulagi, at 21.00 on 29 January to conduct a sweep up ‘The Slot’ north of Guadalcanal during the following day and thus screen the unloading of the transports at Guadalcanal. The escort carriers were too slow to allow TF18 to make the scheduled rendezvous, however, so Giffen left the carriers behind with two destroyers at 14.00 on January 29 and pushed on ahead. Giffen’s force was being tracked by Japanese submarines, who reported on the US ships’ location and movement to their naval headquarters.

Around mid-afternoon, based on the submarines’ reports, 32 Mitsubishi G4M torpedo bombers of the Japanese navy air force were despatched from Rabaul and Kavieng on New Britain and New Ireland islands, staged through Munda and Buka airfields in the Solomon islands, and prepared for an air-launched torpedo attack on TF18 in the area between Rennell island and Guadalcanal. The G4M bombers attacked the ships of TF18 in two waves between 19.00 and 20.00. Two torpedoes hit the heavy cruiser Chicago, causing major damage and bringing the cruiser to a dead stop. Three of the G4M aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the ships of TF18. In response, Halsey sent a tug to take Chicago under tow and ordered TF18 to return to base on the next day. Six destroyers were left behind to escort Chicago and the tug. At 16.00 on January 30, a flight of 11 Mitsubishi torpedo bombers attacked the force round Chicago. Fighters from Enterprise shot down eight of them, but most of the Japanese aircraft were able to release their torpedoes before crashing. One torpedo hit the destroyer La Vallette, causing heavy damage. Four more torpedoes hit the Chicago, which sank. The transport convoy reached Guadalcanal and successfully unloaded its cargo on 30/31 January. The rest of Halsey’s warships took station in the Coral Sea south of the Solomon islands to wait for the approach of any Japanese warship forces supporting what the Allies believed to be an imminent offensive. The departure of TF18 from the Guadalcanal area removed a significant potential threat to the ‘Ke’ operation. Also on January 29, at 18.30 the corvettes Moa and Kiwi of the Royal New Zealand Navy intercepted the Japanese submarine I-1 which was attempting a supply run, off of Kamimbo on Guadalcanal. The two corvettes sank the submarine after a 90-minute battle.

Leaving his cruisers at Kavieng, Mikawa had meanwhile gathered all 21 destroyers of his 8th Fleet in the Shortland islands on 31 January to begin the evacuation runs. Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto was placed in charge of this group of destroyers, which was styled the Reinforcement Unit. The ‘R’ Area Air Force’s 60 floatplanes were tasked with scouting for the Reinforcement Unit and helping defend against PT-boat attacks during the nocturnal evacuation runs. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the USAAF attacked the Shortland islands anchorage on the morning of 1 February, causing no damage and losing four aircraft to Japanese fighters. On the same day, aircraft of the 6th Air Division raided Henderson Field with 23 Ki-43 fighters and six Ki-48 bombers, but caused no damage and suffered the loss of one fighter.

Believing that the Japanese might be retreating to the southern coast of Guadalcanal, Patch on the morning of 1 February landed a reinforced battalion of US Army and US Marine Corps troops, about 1,500 men under the command of Colonel Alexander George, at Verahue on the southern coast of Guadalcanal. The US troops were delivered to the landing location by a naval transport force of six landing craft tank and the high-speed destroyer transport conversion Stringham, escorted by the four destroyers which were to have joined TF18 three days earlier. A Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane spotted the landing force. Believing that the force posed a threat to that night’s scheduled evacuation run, the Japanese launched an attack force of 13 Aichi D3A dive-bombers escorted by 40 A6M fighters from Buin on Bougainville island. Mistaking the Japanese aircraft as friendly, the US destroyers withheld fire until the dive-bombers began their attacks. Beginning at 14.53, the destroyer De Haven was hit by three bombs in quick succession and sank almost immediately some 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Savo island with the loss of 167 of her crew. The destroyer Nicholas was damaged by several near-misses. Five dive-bombers and three fighters were lost to anti-aircraft fire and fighters of the Cactus Air Force, which lost three F4F fighters in the engagement.

Hashimoto departed the Shortland islands at 11.30 on 1 February with 20 destroyers for the first evacuation run: 11 destroyers were designated as transports and the other nine as escorts. The destroyers were attacked in the late afternoon near Vangunu by 92 Cactus Air Force aircraft in two waves. The US aircraft scored a near miss on Makinami, Hashimoto’s flagship, heavily damaging it. Four US aircraft were shot down. Hashimoto transferred to Shirayuki and detached Fumizuki to tow Makinami back to base. Eleven PT-boats awaited Hashimoto’s destroyers between Guadalcanal and Savo island. From 22.45 Hashimoto’s warships and the PT-boats engaged in a series of running battles over the next three hours. Hashimoto’s destroyers, with help from ‘R’ Area Air Force aircraft, sank three of the PT-boats. In the meantime, the transport destroyers arrived off of two pick-up locations at Cape Esperance and Kamimbo at 22.40 and 24.00 respectively. Japanese naval personnel ferried the waiting troops out to the destroyers in barges and landing craft. After embarking 4,935 soldiers, mainly of the 38th Division, the transport destroyers ceased loading at 01.58 and prepared to depart for the return trip to the Shortland islands. About this time, Makigumo, one of the screening destroyers, was suddenly wracked by a large explosion, caused by either a PT-boat torpedo or a naval mine. Informed that Makigumo was immobilised, Hashimoto ordered her to be abandoned and scuttled. During the return voyage, the ships of the Reinforcement Unit were attacked by aircraft of the Cactus Air Force aircraft at 08.00, but sustained no damage and arrived at the Shortland islands without further incident at 12.00 on 2 February 2. On 4 February Patch ordered the 161st Infantry of the 25th Division to replace the 147th Separate Infantry at the front and resume the advance westward. The ‘Yano’ Battalion retreated to new positions at the Segilau river and troops were sent to block the advance of George’s force along the southern coast.

Meanwhile, Halsey’s carrier and battleship task forces remained just beyond Japanese air attack range about 300 miles (480 km) to the south of Guadalcanal. Kondo sent two of his force’s destroyers, Asagumo and Samidare, to the Shortland islands to replace the two destroyers lost in the first evacuation run. Hashimoto led the second evacuation mission with 20 destroyers south toward Guadalcanal at 11.30 on 4 February. US land-based aircraft attacked Hashimoto’s ships in two waves beginning at 15.50 with a total of 74 aircraft. Near-misses heavily damaged Maikaze, and Hashimoto detached Nagatsuki to take her in tow her back to the Shortland islands. The Cactus Air Force lost 11 aircraft in the attack while the Japanese lost one A6M. The US PT-boats did not sortie to attack Hashimoto’s force during this night and the loading went uneventfully. The Reinforcement Unit embarked Hyakutake, his staff, and 3,921 men, mainly of the 2nd Division, and reached Bougainville without incident by 12.50 on 5 February. A force of US attack aircraft launched during that morning failed to locate Hashimoto’s force.

Believing that the Japanese operations on 1 and 4 February had been reinforcement rather than evacuation missions, the US forces on Guadalcanal proceeded slowly and cautiously, advancing only about 900 yards (820 m) each day. George’s force halted on 6 February after advancing to Titi on the southern coast. On the northern coast, the 161st Infantry finally began its attack to the west at 10.00 on 6 February and reached the Umasani river in the course of the same day. At the same time, the Japanese were withdrawing their remaining 2,000 troops to Kamimbo. On 7 February the 161st Infantry crossed the Umasani river and reached Bunina, about 9 miles (14 km) from Cape Esperance. George’s force, now commanded by George F. Ferry, advanced from Titi to Marovovo and dug in for the night about 2,000 yards (1830 m) north of the village.

Aware of the presence of Halsey’s carriers and other large warships near Guadalcanal, the Japanese considered cancelling the third evacuation run, but decided to go ahead as planned. Kondo’s force closed to within 550 miles (890 km) of Guadalcanal from the north to be ready in case Halsey’s warships attempted to intervene. Hashimoto departed the Shortland islands with 18 destroyers at 12.00 on 7 February, this time taking a course south of the Solomon islands instead of down ‘The Slot’. A Cactus Air Force package of 36 aircraft attacked Hashimoto at 17.55, heavily damaging Isokaze with a near-miss. Isokaze retired escorted by Kawakaze. The US and Japanese each lost one aeroplane in the attack. Arriving off Kamimbo, Hashimoto’s force loaded 1,972 soldiers by 00.03 on 8 February, unhindered by the US Navy. For an additional 90 minutes, destroyer crewmen rowed their boats along the shore calling out again and again to make sure no one was left behind. At 01.32 the Reinforcement Unit left Guadalcanal and reached Bougainville without incident at 10.00, completing ‘Ke’.

At dawn on 8 February the US Army forces on both coasts resumed their advances, encountering only a few sick and dying Japanese soldiers. Patch now realised that the ‘Tokyo Express’ runs over the last week had been evacuation rather than reinforcement missions. At 16.50 on 9 February the two US forces met on the western coast at the village of Tenaro. The Japanese had evacuated a total of 10,652 men from Guadalcanal, about all that remained of the 36,000 total troops sent to the island of Guadalcanal during the campaign: some 600 of the evacuees succumbed to their injuries or illnesses before they could receive sufficient medical care, and 3,000 others required lengthy hospitalisation or recuperation. After receiving word of the completion of the operation, Yamamoto commended all the units involved and ordered Kondo to return to Truk with his warships. The 2nd Division and 38th Division were shipped to Rabaul and partially reconstituted with replacements. The 2nd Division was relocated to the Philippine islands in March 1943, and the 38th Division was assigned to defend Rabaul and New Ireland. The 8th Area Army and South-Eastern Area Fleet reoriented their forces to defend the central Solomon islands at Kolombangara and New Georgia, and prepared to send reinforcements, comprising mostly Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s 51st Division, originally detailed for Guadalcanal, to New Guinea. The 17th Army was rebuilt around Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda’s 6th Division and headquartered on Bougainville. A few Japanese stragglers remained on Guadalcanal, many of which were subsequently killed or captured by Allied patrols. The last known Japanese survivor surrendered in October 1947. ‘Ke’ had been a remarkable operation by any standard, and quite remarkably the Americans had failed to respond with determined surface attacks by anything other than coastal craft.

Operations ‘Anklet’ and ‘Archery’: classic commando raids of December 1941

Burning ammunition dumpMilitary operations in World War II did not pause for any Christmas and New Year break, and 69 years ago, during December 1941, the British launched a pair of classic special forces operations against two of the German garrison forces in occupied Norway. The first of these was Operation ‘Anklet’ of 26/28 December, which was undertaken as a diversion for the larger Operation ‘Archery’ of 27 December/1 January. The target for ‘Anklet’ was the Lofoten islands, which lie off the Norwegian coast about 100 miles (160 km) to the north of the Arctic Circle. In appearance and size these resemble the Outer Hebrides off the north-west coast of Scotland. They were selected by Combined Operations HQ as a relative safe diversionary target to coincide with the primary operation some 300 miles (480 km) farther to the south between Trondheim and Bergen. Since Operation ‘Claymore’, the first commando raid on the Lofoten islands on 4 March 1941, the German forces in Norway had been considerably strengthened and allocated many more warplanes. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was enthusiastic in his conviction that feints and major raids were now a militarily legitimate tactic to divert the attention and confuse the minds of the German high command so that it would come to believe that Norway was a serious British (and later Allied) option for the launch of an invasion of mainland Europe from the UK. This would persuade the Germans in general, and Adolf Hitler in particular, that Norway was a ‘zone of destiny’ and had therefore to be garrisoned by sizeable forces which, Churchill rightly believed, would thus be unavailable for deployment elsewhere.

Operation ‘Anklet’ involved some 300 men of Lieutenant Colonel S. S. Harrison’s No. 12 Commando, as well as a number of Free Norwegian troops, against German and other installations on the Lofoten islands in the Vestfjord region. The raid was planned by Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations HQ as the diversionary component of a two-pronged operation whose primary component was ‘Archery’ against the island of Vågsøy (Vaagsö) farther to the south, and was intended to capitalise on the growing strength, expertise and success of the commando forces during 1941. The intention was that ‘Anklet’ should be mounted with ‘Archery’ as a subsidiary thrust to divert German attention to the northern region just before the descent of the main force, but in the event poor weather delayed the start of ‘Archery’ to 27 December. Command of the operation was entrusted to Rear Admiral L. H. K. Hamilton in the light cruiser Arethusa, which with the destroyers Somali, Ashanti, Bedouin and Eskimo, escort destroyers Wheatland, Lamerton and Polish Krakowiak and Kujawiak, Norwegian corvettes Eglantine and Acanthus, minesweepers Speedwell, Harrier and Halcyon, escorted two assault ships. These last were the converted cross-Channel ferries Princess J. Charlotte and Prince Albert. There were also the tankers Black Ranger and Grey Ranger, the rescue ships Scott and Danish Gudrun Maersk, the tug Jaunty, and for navigational support the submarine Sealion. The force departed Scapa Flow on 22 December, but four days later Princess J. Charlotte had to return to Scapa Flow with engine trouble, escorted by Wheatland, forcing Hamilton to scale down the basic plan.

Wounded being helped onto a landing craftThe commandos landed at 06.00 on 26 December, the planners having scheduled the raid in the expectation that the German garrison would be caught off guard after the Christmas festivities of the day before. The landings were unopposed as the men entered two harbours on the westerly island of Moskenesøya. The towns of Reine and Moskenes were soon occupied, and a small number of German prisoners and Quislings (pro-German Norwegians) were captured, this number including those manning the wireless station at Glåpen. A large supply of French chocolates and cigarettes was found and distributed to the members of the area’s Norwegian population, who expressed their concern about reprisals and wished the British forces to remain. Hamilton was tempted to consider a prolonged stay as there is no sun in these latitudes between 10 December and 3 January, so the risk of German air attack was much reduced. However, a bomb dropped by a German seaplane on 27 December fell close to Arethusa, which had penetrated into the Vestfjord in company with Ashanti, Eskimo and Somali in search of German shipping, and in combination with intelligence reports that German fighter and bomber forces were moving north to deal with his force, which was operating beyond the range of fighter cover from the UK, this persuaded Hamilton to withdraw. The force reached British waters again on 1 January 1942. Two German radio transmitters had been demolished, two German-manned Norwegian coasting vessels (1,125-ton Kong Harald and 745-ton Nordland) captured, the German patrol boat Geier sunk by Ashanti, and a few Germans and Quislings taken prisoner. The raid had therefore served its purpose, largely in disrupting German inshore sea communications in the area, but was the last of its type undertaken without air support.

Operation ‘Archery’ was a more ambitious undertaking by elements of Nos 2, 3, 4 and 6 Commandos, as well as other forces, against German positions and other installations on Vågsøy (Vaagsö) and Måløy (Maaloy) islands off the Norwegian coast just to the south of the Stadlandet headland. Like ‘Anklet’, ‘Archery’ was delayed by poor weather and started one day later than ‘Anklet’. The operation was commanded by Rear Admiral H. M. Burrough in the cruiser Kenya, which with the destroyers Offa, Onslow and Oribi, escort destroyer Chiddingfold and submarine Tuna (the last as the force navigational check) escorted the assault ships Prince Charles and Prince Leopold carrying Brigadier J. Haydon’s landing forces. In conjunction with a UK-launched bombing attack, the warships silenced the coastal batteries on Vaagsö and allowed the troops to get ashore without difficulty for the destruction of German facilities. The operation was undertaken by No. 3 Commando, two troops of No. 2 Commando, a medical detachment of No. 4 Commando, a demolition party from 101 Troop (Canoe) of No. 6 Commando and a dozen Norwegians from the Norwegian Independent Company under Captain Martin Linge. The 570 commandos were divided into five parties with the objectives of securing the area to the north of the town of South Vaagsö (Måløy) and engaging any German reinforcements on the western side of the Ulversund after being landed from Oribi (Group 5); subduing and securing South Vaagsö town (Group 2); eliminating the Germans on Måløy island (Moldøen) dominating the town of South Vaagsö (Group 3); eliminating the German strongpoint at Hollevik (Holvik) south of South Vaagsö (Group 1); and providing a floating reserve offshore in Kenya (Group 4). The operation’s primary task was the destruction of fish oil production and stores, which the Germans used in the manufacture of high explosives. Another intention was to cause the Germans to maintain and increase their forces in Norway which might otherwise have been deployed to the Eastern Front.

Wounded British officerThe landing was made at daybreak, with a naval gunfire bombardment just before this, and the attainment of the objectives went generally to plan except in the town of South Vaagsö, where the German opposition, provided by most of the 150-man garrison of Generalleutnant Kurt Woytasch’s 181st Infantry Division, was considerably stronger than had been expected as, unknown to the British, some 50 experienced Jäger (light infantry) troops from the Eastern Front were present on leave. Despite being taken by surprise, the Germans rallied quickly and started to fight back. Three of the four coastal guns on Måløy were knocked out, and on this small island the fighting was over in 20 minutes as a result, in part, of the accuracy and precise timing of the naval support. Kenya’s bombardment lifted when the 105 men of Group 3 were just 50 yards (45 m) from the beach, and the Germans had only just begun to lift their heads before the commandos overran them. However, in this part of the action Linge was killed. The German survivors were rounded up, the demolition work was completed, and the party crossed the short stretch of water to join the fierce house-to-house fighting in South Vaagsö. Meantime the force at Hollevik faced a weaker resistance than had been expected as eight men of the defence force were in South Vaagsö having breakfast. Thus the commandos of Group 1 were soon able to reinforce those of Group 2 in the South Vaagsö engagement. The floating reserve of Group 4 was also committed as the German resistance was greater than expected.

Meanwhile the commandos of Group 5 had been transported farther up the fjord past Måløy island into the Ulversund by the destroyer Oribi, which was accompanied by Onslow. Oribi landed the commandos of Group 5 without opposition, and these men then cratered the road with explosives to prevent reinforcements from getting through from North Vaagsö. They also destroyed the telephone exchange at Rodberg. It was in the Ulversund that the British spotted a number of merchant ships as well as an armed trawler. Those under power beached themselves, and the armed trawler Föhn (used as a patrol vessel) and 2,935-ton freighter Reimar Edzard Fritzen were boarded despite sniper fire from the shore in the hope of finding confidential papers and secret code books. It was at about this time that two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and two Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers were active in the area. The men of Group 5 later joined the fighting in South Vaagsö. In the fighting for this last, the British commander on the spot, Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, had already summoned the floating reserve and troops from Måløy island. A number of the town’s inhabitants aided the commandos by bringing up ammunition, grenades and explosives, and moving the wounded back to the landing craft. After destroying four factories, fish-oil stores, ammunition and fuel stores, the telephone exchange and various military installations, the commandos started to pull back at about 14.00, leaving much of the town ablaze. The naval force had meanwhile sunk eight vessels: in Maalöysund Onslow and Oribi sank Föhn and Reimar Edzard Fritzen, as already noted, and also the 2,258-ton freighter Norma, 1,003-ton freighter Eismeer and, somewhat later, the beached 1,712-ton freighter Anita L. M. Russ. Off Vaagsö Offa and Chiddingfold sank the patrol boat Donner and the 5,870-ton freighter Anhalt; the British forces also sank a tug. It was not all one-way traffic, however, for Kenya took several hits from the coastal battery at Rugsundöy.

At 13.45 Durnford-Slater ordered the withdrawal from South Vaagsö. The British force re-embarked at 14.45 as the short Arctic day drew to a close, and the British ships immediately started to move away from the islands.

Attacks by German aircraft on 27 and 28 December were unsuccessful. No British ships were lost, but the Royal Navy had four men killed and another four wounded. The commandos suffered 17 killed and 53 wounded, Linge was killed, and RAF Coastal Command lost 31 men killed and 11 of the aircraft (two Handley-Page Hampden, seven Bristol Blenheim and two Bristol Beaufighter warplanes) it had deployed over the area from bases in northern Scotland. The commandos killed at least 120 German military personnel, and returned with 98 prisoners as well as a complete copy of a current German naval code book. Four Quislings and 77 Norwegian volunteers were also brought back.

The raid was enough to persuade Hitler to make a rapid diversion of 30,000 troops to Norway, order an improvement in the region’s coastal and inland defences, and send the battleship Tirpitz, battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, pocket battleship Lützow, and heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen to Norway. This constituted a major diversion of effort and forces which could have had significant impact elsewhere, and confirmed that Hitler believed that the British might be planning an invasion of northern Norway as a means of exerting pressure on Sweden and Finland to turn against Germany.

Dismal quality of BBC TV news

I was brought up in East Africa in the late 1940s and during the 1950s. Every evening we listed to the news from ‘home’ on the BBC World Service, and this conditioned me to a high quality of spoken English and a news coverage that was both balanced and comprehensive. My parents returned to the UK in the early 1960s and settled down to a typical pattern of British middle class existence, including a switch from the BBC news on the radio to that on the TV. From the early 1960s, though, I lost touch with news coverage at school and later at university and the start of my working life, in which there was no TV and indeed little time or inclination for the news.

Only when I married in the late 1970s and settled to a more domestic life did I acquire a TV and once again start to watch the TV news. As an inherited factor, I suppose, my default source for the news was the BCC, but I soon started to become disenchanted with this. I don’t know if it was I or the BBC that was more largely responsible, but I began to feel that the BBC was losing touch with its remit to broadcast news, and had instead embarked on the process of transmitting what we today call ‘sound bites’ that have steadily become ever more heavily laden with personal views and a whole mass of irrelevant material. At much the same time there seemed to have begun the process of divorcing the news, in common with much of the BBC’s other speech programming, from ‘received English’ pronunciation and enunciation. I have no objection in general to regional and, dare one say it, class variations of accent and dialect, but the task of news programmes is to disseminate the news in an intelligible form, and this fact has become increasingly lost in the politically correct replacement of spoken English, whether on TV or radio, to a different common denominator in which it it is permissible to say, for example, ‘infer’ rather than ‘imply’, ‘owing to’ rather than ‘as a result of’, and ‘over’ rather than ‘about’. Add to this the appallingly wrong use of ‘hopefully’ and other such adverbs (‘What are these?’, one can almost imagine the BBC’s editorial terms asking), the increasing loss of the passive voice, the use of transitive verbs as intransitive verbs and vice versa, and the the ever-increasing appearance of essentially meaningless jargon phrases such as ‘going forward’ when there is absolutely nothing wrong with ‘in the future’.

These and a host of other similar horrors combine to make the news ever more imprecise and ever less intelligible. Add to this factor the increasing emphasis on sports news and stories about ‘celebrities’ (in nine out of 10 cases wholly unknown to me, I readily admit, and presumably associated with nonce ephemera such as pop music and other entertainment media), and the BBC TV news seems to have lost touch with what is important in the concept of the news. In this respect the BBC TV news has switched from being The Times to the Daily Mirror of broadcast news in its desire to make itself more popular and ‘accessible’.

There has also been a significant degradation of the editorial concept behind the news, with a completely unnecessary quantity of repetition. This convinces me that the BBC believes that its average viewer has the legendary attention span of a goldfish or, as I believe, the average American.

Take the main early evening news at six o’clock on BBC1 and imagine, if you will, a day on which there has been a murder in Glasgow (there’s a novelty!). The news reader starts with this information and a couple of other items, and then embarks on the ‘meat’ of the news with the information that there has been a grisly murder in Glasgow, where members of the community have been ‘shock horrored’. The news reader then transfers the item to a local reporter, who starts with the information that there has been a gruesome murder that the police are investigating (what a surprise!) and which has shocked members of the community (cut to a ‘vox pop’ interview with a typical resident who says that he or she is shocked that such as thing could have happened and adds that he or she saw the police arriving to start their investigation). The local reporter then speaks to a member of the police, who delivers himself or herself of the opinion, in ponderous police-speak, that the police are investigating and are pursuing several lines of investigation. As often as not the local reporter then summarises the above, and returns the viewer to the studio.

In the studio the news reader repeats the fact of the murder at quarter past six, and then concludes the programme at half past six with the same thing again. This means that the viewer has been told essentially the same thing at least four, and possibly as many as six, times within 30 minutes. Then the main news is followed by the local news, which rehashes the same item in much the same way and, indeed, often with the same interviews.

This is plainly wrong in basic editorial terms. For a start it makes extensive use of visual material in a story that is is no way visual, suggesting that this is merely an example of ‘we have the technology so we’ll use it’. At the same time it wastes much time that could profitably be used for other news items. It means the costly despatch of a local news team (reporter, camera operator, sound recordist, etc?) to add nothing to the basic news items even after their material has been edited in the local news studio. Finally, what conceivable interest is there in the fact that a local resident had been horrified by the course of recent events? The only thing that would justify any such ‘vox pop’ interview would be the resident’s delivery of an opinion that the murder was an excellent thing as the dead person was a drug dealer/mugger/child molester/tormentor of pensioners etc.

Replace the murder with a train or aeroplane crash, sporting ‘disaster’, or adverse weather all presented along basically similar lines, and there you have the guts of the BBC TV news, which will then over-emphasise the story for days to come: what, after several weeks of very cold weather, can be added to our overall stock of knowledge by the tenth interview with a stranded traveller who is upset about the fact?

I have the feeling that the ITV news may be similar, but the Channel 4 news does appear to be significantly better structured in basic editorial terms.

Wrong end to the right era?

The end of the UK’s Harrier capability is a sad moment for all concerned with effective support of the British ground forces in limited-war operations of the type in which they are currently committed. With its STOVL capability carrying a limited but nonetheless useful weapons load, and its ability to operate from extemporised landing pads as well as ‘austere’ airfields, the BAE Harrier was the ideal close air support and ground-attack warplane for the warfare of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Its sensors were adequate for the tasks demanded of the aeroplane, its cockpit was well located to provide the pilot with the good forward and downward fields of vision essential for locating and attacking targets on the ground, its weapons were nicely optimised for their task, and its performance included the right combination of high speed to reach the target area swiftly, and modest speed and agility to find and attack a slow-moving target on the ground close to friendly forces.

Following that of the SEPECAT Jaguar, which was another excellent warplane retired early for financial rather than military reasons, the forced demise of the Harrier leaves the British ground forces reliant for support on two excellent but unoptimised types in the form of the now elderly Panavia Tornado and modern Eurofighter Typhoon. Both of these were designed for high-end capability in an altogether more advanced form of warfare against a technically advanced opponent. The former was designed for deep strike and interdiction at high ingress and egress speeds in single-pass attacks with advanced rather than ‘mud-moving’ weapons, and the latter was created primarily for the air combat role. Given the fact that modern warplanes are designed with a large number of external hardpoints and avionics integrated via a digital databus that also allows the addition of other equipment, it is a comparatively straightforward task to give warplanes of this time a measure of ground attack and close air support capability. Specialised navigation, reconnaissance and targeting pods can be installed on one or two of the inner hardpoints, and this leaves the outer hardpoints free for the carriage of a significant weight of weapons and, where necessary, podded countermeasures.

Such a process has added an attack capability to the Tornado and Typhoon, but cannot disguise the fact that both of these warplanes were in fact created for other tasks and cannot therefore be fully optimised for the attack role. Moreover, both types were expensive to design and manufacture, and remain costly to maintain and operate. So can they be cost-effective in the attack role? I would argue that they cannot be so in terms of the results they can achieve relative to their overall costs. And where the primary threat in ground-attack operations comes from small arms, machine gun and cannon fire, it seems senseless to send into such an arena a comparatively lightly protected warplane carrying advanced and decidedly vulnerable and enormously expensive avionics that are, in the attack role, so much dead weight.

It is hard to escape the suggestion that, in the face of governmental demands that the RAF cut its costs, the senior levels of the Ministry of Defence and RAF decided that the budgetary axe should sever the neck of the Harrier, which was service’s oldest fixed-wing warplane type, despite the fact that the Harrier was currently playing a more important part in current operations than either the Tornado or Typhoon. There has always been a feeling that the latest type must somehow be better than older types, possibly because it is faster or carries more advanced avionics and weapons, but also because ‘newness’ is attractive in its own right.

So what is the answer? It is pointless now to talk about the possibility of bringing back the Harrier (and even less so the Jaguar), for neither type is still in production and stocks of essential spares have been run down or scrapped. In the shorter term, therefore, reliance will have to be placed on the existing Tornado and Typhoon, and in the slightly longer term on the forthcoming Lockheed Martin Lightning II. Given the low-intensity nature of the type of warfare to which the British forces are committed now and in the foreseeable future, however, surely there is a pressing operational need for a dedicated ground attack and close air support warplane.

Here, I believe, the British should be looking right now to start the process of creating a capable but by no means ‘gold-plated’ type that could enter service in about 10 years time. This should be a basic platform offering moderately good performance (high transit speed and lengthy loiter time); a sturdy long-life structure incorporating good physical protection for the pilot, avionics, powerplant and fuel; and the ability to carry a large and diverse load of weapons and/or sensors on external hardpoints. It should also be well equipped in terms of its internal tactical sensors and displays but, as perhaps the most important single feature, be fully optimised for the ready upgrade of all its electronic elements (as and when these become necessary and available in the form of ‘plug and play’ packages based on commercial off-the-shelf items) without the need for major internal changes.

Such a warplane should be seen as a genuinely long-term asset that can be upgraded, though only when there is a real operational necessity. Initial procurement should be based on equipping the required number of operational and training units, and creating a stock of attrition replacements. But the type should not then be taken out of production: the dedicated manufacturing facility should be maintained on the basis of low-rate production to ensure that the operational and training fleets are not degraded over a period of many decades.

Bring back the death penalty

First I must declare my belief that punishment for any and all crimes should be aimed first at the protection of society and second the punishment of the offender rather than any attempt at his or her rehabilitation. I also strongly believe that there are now so many billions of human beings that the killing of a tiny minority of them to preserve the fabric of society should be seen as no more important than the deaths of so many thousands in car ‘accidents’ that are generally the result of something other than mere chance. Though it may be seen as something of an old-fashioned notion, it must be appreciated that if a person has a soul, the execution of the short-term physical vessel in which it resides will merely return the immortal soul to God or the next cycle of existence, and if a person does not have a soul then it matters little in ‘the great scheme of things’ whether or not he or she dies.

Within this overall context, I believe that the correct punishment for crimes of premeditated violence should be death, with the penalty to be meted out swiftly but humanely through the organisation of a special and dedicated trial and appeal process.

What is a crime of premeditated violence? The most obvious answer is a crime which results in the death of a person, with greed (in any of its senses) and/or personal profit as the perpetrator’s primary motivation. The clearest example of this type of crime is cold-blooded murder either directly for profit or indirectly in the course of another crime that nonetheless results in someone’s death.

It is arguable, though, that the death penalty should not be limited just to crimes of this nature. Take, for example, the case of an armed robbery even when the crime does not result in a fatality. Yet the very fact that the robber has gone out to commit the crime with a weapon that can be used to kill, and whose possession is designed to persuade the victim that the criminal is indeed willing to kill, indicates that the criminal is indeed in the frame of mind to kill. The possession of a weapon during the commission of such a crime is sufficient, therefore, to persuade me that the death penalty is the right sentence for the armed robber.

Another type of offence for which the death penalty seems appropriate is any sexual crime including violence. This should be construed as including the use of force in rape, the use of drugs to remove or at least reduce the victim’s capacity to refuse, and every form of sexual attack on a child. This last type of victim lacks the physical or moral strength to fight off or deny his or her attacker, whose reliance on greater size and strength should be seen as direct evidence of the willingness to use force.

The re-adoption of the death penalty and its imposition for a wider range of crimes are fully justifiable in moral terms, I believe. They would also exercise have a strong deterrent effect on a certain stratum of criminals and, almost as a side effect, reduce the prison population. Spin-off benefits of this last would be a reduction in the prison building programme and the huge cost of keeping this type of prisoner locked away for many years.

The reimposition and wider use of the death penalty would have to be accompanied, I believe, by the creation of a new type of court specialising in crimes for which the death penalty would be the default sentence for a guilty verdict. The current court system is bloated and wholly inefficient, as shown by the fact that trials for matters such as perjury and fraud can last for many months and cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds for the trial alone. New courts for the trial of capital crimes should be, and could be, far more efficient if the cases against and for the accused were stripped down to their basic features and presented to the members of the jury without emotive argument. Here it would be the responsibility of the judge to control the process tightly and ensure that common sense prevailed.

The case would thus be heard before a judge specialising in capital crime, with the jury finding for or against the defendant just as at present. A guilty verdict from the jury should result in the death sentence unless the judge has any compelling reason, such as anything more than some one twentieth degree of realistic doubt for example, to substitute a long custodial sentence. The case and its sentence would be referred automatically to a special appeals court, which would be tasked with making a timely review of the trial and either confirming or setting aside the death sentence. This review process should be completed within weeks rather than months of the end of the trial, which should itself have taken only a short time given the removal from the process of the current and often wholly unnecessary mass of extraneous matter and argument. Should the appeals court uphold the sentence, the execution of the convicted person should take place in a matter of days rather than weeks.

I feel that the right sentence would almost invariably result if the whole process were handled carefully and with a liberal application of common sense. There would, of course, inevitably be a few cases resulting in the handing down and implementation of the wrong sentence. This would be regrettable, and in such cases there would be a case for the rapid rehabilitation of the executed person, insofar as any such thing is possible, and the payment of compensation to any near relative.

In overall terms, though, I remain convinced that the benefits to society would far outweigh the moral cost of the occasional wrongful execution. I realise that the reimposition of the death sentence in British law would be contrary to European law, and would require the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. This too would be beneficial for the UK, I believe.

A vital military/industrial core capability needed for the United Kingdom

British military requirements are changing, probably more slowly than they should, as the country’s political and military leadership seeks to accommodate itself to the combination of a changing world situation and a tightening of the national purse. Even so, the UK is gradually creating armed forces that are indeed better suited to the current military situation, which is based on the prevalence of irregular warfare rather than large-scale operations between power blocs of basically similar technological sophistication. This is all to the good, but we must be careful that the country does not loose sight of the fact that political and military priorities can, and indeed often do, change – and change with alarming speed. With their eyes fixed firmly on the desire for re-election within a maximum period of five years, politicians find it easy to be long-sighted in terms of prognostications about a future in which their opponents may be in power and will therefore take the blame for any of the current politicians’ mistakes, but short-sighted in terms of decisions that will affect their popularity as the current parliamentary term progresses toward the next general election.

Yet the nature of politics and the associated military thinking are as volatile as ever, and can change with a speed that is remarkably more rapid than any capacity for realistic response. In these circumstances, therefore, I believe that the British political and military leadership must think not only of the present and the foreseeable future, but of any and all the futures that might realistically start to develop not only during the next 10 years but the decade after that.

At the same time, it is national ‘head-in-the-sandism’ to claim that in times of crisis our allies and other ‘friendly nations’ will come to out assistance with supplies of weapons if not direct military support. Allies and ‘friendly nations’ are notoriously fickle in their provision of support. One needs look no further than the relationship of France and Israel in the late 1960s when, in a time of Israeli crisis and Arab pressure, France refused to deliver Dassault Mirage 5 warplanes which had been designed to an Israeli requirement and built against an Israeli order for which Dassault had already been paid.

From this it surely follows that the UK must retain, as a matter of overriding strategic importance, a national capability for the design and manufacture of the full range of armaments ranging from small arms ammunition to strategic weapons. This does not mean that the UK should physically undertake the design, procurement and and full-scale deployment of this full range of armaments during the current period of straitened finances, but must nonetheless build and maintain the capacity to do just this should the situation demand it.

What I believe to be essential for the assurance of national security, therefore, is the retention of a facility for the design of the majority of the weapons which our military forces may need for any of the types of warfare they may have to face in the time it takes to design, procure and undertake a major deployment of modern weapons. Quite apart from its importance in providing for national security, it should be added, this process would be a significant source of direct employment for designers, engineers and skilled manufacturers in fields as diverse as materials, chemistry, computing, cybernetics, radar, optronics, displays, communications and the like. And the benefits for employment would inevitably expand as the implications of discoveries in these fields find a host of civilian applications.

This process of conceiving and designing would be important in its own right, but would also have to be validated in the form of hardware. So I believe that these largely conceptual processes should be followed by prototyping and pilot production to ensure that hardware and software are not just paper or computer exercises, but can be shown to work under real-world conditions. This would also provide the experience that would allow improvements to be worked into the design being validated, and spur further ideas for later generations of weapons. This whole process of prototyping and limited production would itself provide skilled employment and, though expensive, would be invaluable in maintaining key national strategic design and manufacturing capabilities at costs considerably less than those of large-scale production and deployment, with all the latter’s liabilities in terms of life-cycle operating and maintenance costs.

The testing of pilot-production hardware would also demand the establishment and maintenance of high-quality test and development units within the armed forces, and these units would be invaluable in their own right as cadres for larger units equipped with these new-generation weapons should full manufacture and deployment be deemed necessary. They would also be invaluable for the training of foreign nationals should any of the new weapon types receive export orders.

The importance and realistic nature of such an effort can be found in the British Aerospace EAP (Experimental Aircraft Programme) prototype. This was designed and built as a technology demonstrator for the anticipated European fighter that became the European Fighter Aircraft in 1986 after France’s 1985 withdrawal from the programme, then the Eurofighter 2000 and finally the current Eurofighter Typhoon.

A revised army for modern warfare

The British Army currently faces no major threat in terms of an operational- or strategic-level campaign against a technologically equal adversary, but of course there is no guarantee that such a threat will not emerge within the foreseeable future. Among other things, this means that several of the army’s higher-technology arms, such as the armoured and artillery arms, have equipment that is of no real value in today’s land warfare, in which the ‘enemy’ is likely to comprise lightly armed irregular forces fielding few weapons heavier than the heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade. These current and possible foes are, however, skilled in the exploitation of their major strengths, such as a knowledge of the local terrain, the nature of the local population, and their commitment to a strong religious and/or ideological motivation. This is what makes the Afghan insurgent forces so difficult an opposition to the allied forces battling them in Afghanistan and the borders of countries, such as Pakistan, with which Afghanistan shares a border.

British Armed Forces in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The American, British and allied troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan are just one example of this tendency, which can be found with little more than local differences in other parts of the world, such as Somalia, the Arabian peninsula, South-East Asia, the Philippines and several parts of Latin America. In some of these areas there are obvious political differences between the sides, but increasingly it is the religious aspect that has become predominant and is indeed continuing to come to the fore as the driving element in the division between the parties in each of today’s, and possibly tomorrow’s, bloody irregular wars.

So is the British Army focused to best effect on the ways of fighting irregular forces? I am of the opinion that it is not, for altogether too great an emphasis is still placed on what the Americans might describe as ‘legacy concepts’ stemming from the time when the greatest threat posed to the army was the possibility of fighting a land war in Europe. This would have been as part of the NATO alliance seeking to halt any westward offensive by the Warsaw Pact forces led by the now-defunct USSR. Such warfare was seen in terms of major armoured clashes between formations equipped with heavy and complex main battle tanks carrying powerful gun armament and protected by active countermeasures as well as advanced passive armour. In such clashes the primary armoured forces would have been supported by infantry delivered to and moved on the battlefield by tracked or, later, wheeled armoured personnel carriers and mechanised infantry fighting/combat vehicles. The primary task of the infantry would have been to hold flank positions and chokepoints from which to savage the enemy’s armour with specialised anti-tank missiles of the short-, medium- and long-range types launched from vehicles or by disembarked missile teams; tackle the enemy’s supporting fixed-wing warplanes and helicopters with surface-to-air missiles and/or advanced anti-aircraft cannon systems (themselves often carried on tracked chassis); and deny the enemy’s infantry the ability to undertake the same sort of task in support of their own armoured forces.

These forward-deployed forces would have been backed by longer-range weapons such as artillery, generally in the calibre bracket between 105 and 203 mm, able to fire accurately to a range of 40 km or more with a whole spectrum of projectile types, and in later years multiple-launch rocket systems firing generally unguided but in some cases guided projectiles also able to deliver a multitude of warhead types in the area-saturation or, later, point attack roles. Both the artillery and rocket systems were based on tracked or, in some later cases, wheeled chassis designed to provide the same level of battlefield mobility as possessed by the forward forces, and so enhance tactical mobility and allow ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactics in which the system fired and then left the area before the enemy’s artillery and rocket systems saturated the area with counter-fire.

Such was the logic round with the land warfare of the ‘Cold War’ was planned and developed. In this the critical factor, for each side, was the need to combat an enemy with similar weapons. NATO’s essentially defensive posture was centred on the alliance’s willingness to trade space and so buy the time in which more forces could be deployed, and their air forces could decimate the Warsaw Pact’s ever-lengthening lines of communication and so force them to a halt. Only then would the NATO forces have launched their counteroffensive.

This is not a tactical concept relevant to today’s irregular campaigns such as that in Afghanistan. As noted above, here the enemy has no medium- or large-calibre weapons, uses 4×4 light trucks and all-terrain vehicles such as quad bikes and motorcycles rather than tracked and wheeled armoured vehicles, and has no air power of any type. Yet the US-led forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan persist with with use of larger-calibre weapons, heavy vehicles (now mostly of the wheeled rather than the tracked type), and stand-off missiles that can yield useful military results but all too often cause the civilian casualties that further alienate the local population.

So, I would argue, the time is more than ripe for a reassessment of how the army is organised, equipped and trained. I do not believe that we should revert to something analogous to the infamous ‘ten-year rule’ of the 1920s and 1930s when, largely for cost-cutting purposes, it became accepted that the possibility of major warfare would be detected at least 10 years in advance and allow the armed forces to be enlarged and re-equipped in time for such a major war. But what the army and its political leaders should consider is a significant reduction of the heavier forces (armour and artillery), which should be trimmed to excellently equipped cadres of very high quality, so paving the way to rapid and effective force enlargement as and when needed. This would allow greater manpower and enlarged resources to be devoted to lighter branches of the service, such as infantry carried in mine-resistant armoured trucks backed by short-range mortars and long-range artillery mounted on modest numbers of wheeled chassis. It was along these lines that South Africa developed its army from the mid-1960s, and this proved highly successful in tactical-level operations in all terrains against the various anti-apartheid insurgent groups against which South Africa fought until the advent of black majority rule in 1993/94.

This, I suggest, should be the model along which the British Army should be reshaped for the type of anti-insurgency warfare in which it now finds itself. In short there should be less emphasis on outright technical superiority in heavier weapons, although technological improvements should not be eschewed as long as they make a direct contribution to the tactical battlefield, and greater emphasis on the development of the infantryman’s capabilities within the tactical team as a individual fighting soldier. The infantryman should be better paid and fed, physically fitter, more highly trained in basic soldiering qualities such as greater fire discipline, better educated to improve initiative and command potential, and provided with superior ‘net-centric’ equipment in matters such as communications gear. What has to be avoided, and this will be a very difficult task, is the burdening of the infantryman with so much equipment that his mobility is still further impaired, he finds it difficult to regulate his temperature, and he becomes exhausted very quickly.

[Photo by ISAF Public Affairs]

The National Health Service – a suitable case for treatment? (II)

Warming to the subject of what the cash-strapped National Health Service can do with the resources that are currently available to it, and are likely to be provided in the near future, I believe that we must look further into the matter of what constitutes a medical ‘self-inflicted’ wound.

The two other most obvious categories, in my estimation, are obesity and infertility.

As the media so often tell us, obesity is one of the major time bombs facing the country in the near future, with enormous consequences for the NHS and the national economy. For the most part, however, obesity really is a self-inflicted wound. Yet people fall over themselves to blame anything but their own greed and appalling life styles. There is a mass of information, readily available and easily assimilated, showing how the combination of a modest exercise and a good diet can reduce obesity, and thus create a fitter and healthier population.

Laziness is clearly a major reason why people do not take enough exercise – and no amount of whingeing about the cost of gyms etc. can disguise the fact that the type of brisk exercise required can be undertaken at absolutely no cost. All that the person needs to do is walk briskly rather than use a car or public transport for travel over the shorter distances that characterise most of our journeys. This is good for everyone from comparatively early childhood to the onset of old age, and complaints that the modern busy life style has removed the time for walking or cycling rather than motor transport is total rubbish. If people woke slightly earlier and got out of bed, spent less time glued to their TVs or computer screens, and wasted less time in a mass of idle chatter during the day, they could easily make available the 30 minutes needed for walking to school, the bus stop, the house of a friend, and the shops.

Walking or some other form of aerobic exercise helps to tone the body and burns calories. If this is combined with a reduced calorie intake, the result is inevitably a medically advantageous loss of body fat and gain of fitness. More exercise is only half of the battle, though, or possibly less than half of it.

The greater part is therefore the food the majority of people eat. Most people consume considerably more food than they need, and this food is almost invariably of the wrong type. For lack of gumption, cooking skills and knowledge, altogether too many people are content to feed themselves from take-away/carry-out outlets (and these often have the gall to call themselves ‘restaurants’, and even advertise themselves as such), and the ready-meal sections of supermarkets. An immediate consequence of this tendency is the littering of our streets and verges with discarded polystyrene cups and food containers, but the more important longer-term result is a bloated obesity in people who have swallowed too many calories in the form of low-cost ingredients made more palatable by a ghastly admixture of salt, sugar, fat and a complex of additives intended largely to whet the appetite and extend the product’s shelf life.

So too many people are living on what is little better than rubbish, no matter what the manufacturers, advertisers and purveyors tell us, and paying way over the odds for this junk food. The people who consume these dire ready meals claim that they have to do so for reasons of time, convenience etc, but this is just an excuse for laziness and an unwillingness to learn and practise the art of cookery. Yet there is enormous enjoyment in planning, preparing, cooking and eating food prepared at home from ingredients which, even if bought in a supermarket, are fresher and less laden with additives than those which go into ready meals. Just as importantly, meals made from fresh ingredients are cheaper than their ready-meal counterparts – and this is a factor of great importance for those on lower incomes who seem to be the greatest consumers of ready meals.

Just consider the price of potatoes bought locally, even at a supermarket, with that of a potato product such as packet of crisps. Each packet contains only a very small weight of potato and costs proportionally far more than the equivalent weight of raw potato, which can be turned into any humber of wholesome and flavourful dishes.

So everything is available for people to exercise more and eat better food in more sparing quantities, and thereby reduce their tendency to obesity. People are lazy, though, and prefer the easy option represented by the take-our/carry-out and ready meal, all too often washed down with a sweet drink. The result is the so-called epidemic of obesity whose huge cost is borne initially by the NHS as it tries to treat people who will almost certainly revert to their own ways, and later by the entire tax-paying community as the obese become less productive and more prone to disease and the need for care.

This is not right, and a rethink of the NHS’s priorities should result in the offering of advice but not the provision of expensive and almost invariably wasted treatment.

Fertility treatment is something else that should not be offered by the NHS. There has emerged a tendency to consider fertility as a human right, but this most certainly it is not. It is, of course, a matter of personal tragedy if a couple wishes to have a family but has been dealt a raw hand and cannot have children naturally. But there is not and never has been any inalienable right for humans to have children, and fertility treatment should not be provided by an overextended NHS.

There are alternatives such as adoption or private medicine. Some want children of their own genetic inheritance, however, and private fertility treatment is expensive and therefore regarded as offering the better-off an ‘unfair advantage’ . I am sympathetic to this concept, but am still very far from convinced that the public purse should be opened to those wishing to bring yet more children into as world already burdened with altogether too many people.