It's Armed Forces Day and concidentally I've just finished reading David Blakeley's "Pathfinder". This book is about a 2003 UK special forces mission behind enemy lines in Iraq and it's full of lessons, including a couple that the British Army should have learned long ago.
As the US Marines seized Nasiriyeh, a town that against military intelligence analysis had turned out to be strongly defended by some of Saddam's most committed troops, a small airfield at Qalat Sikar, some 80 miles behind the enemy's front line, became an important part of the battle plan. If this could be secured by the Parachute Regiment it would be a valuable stepping stone for the advance towards Baghdad.
The job of the elite Pathfinder (aka PF) platoon is to get vital on-the-ground intelligence while risking only a few personnel. The obvious tactic was for them to get to Qalat Sikar by para drop, but air resources were not available. So instead, they had to take three Land Rovers straight up the road, with a network of rivers and canals (not on our maps) on one side and wooded, difficult terrain on the other. They passed a number of previously unsuspected Iraqi positions but were spotted at last and a big Toyota pickup-borne Fedayeen ambush set ahead for them.
The team called HQ but were told that there was no possibility of air strikes or evacuation by helicopter. So the only option (other than a long, almost certainly fatal Bravo Two Zero-style foot-slog) was to drive back again, this time through a series of ambushes by a fully-alert enemy. This was running the gauntlet with a vengeance, and only a combination of acutely-honed mobile firing skills, courage, improvisation and luck got them back to the Marines alive and (scarcely believably) unhurt.
There had been far more enemy than the intel had suggested, maybe two thousand very well-armed troops in a number of locations along the road. They had not been spotted by satellite and were well dug-in and camouflaged. But thanks to the PF excursion their positions were now known and Blakeley and co. passed on the information to the Marine commander, who called in air strikes that cleared the way for the Coalition forces to speed northwards.
Blakeley comments more than once on the difference between resourcing for the Americans and the Brits, and how we are so often the poor relation. The whole gauntlet could have been avoided if we had had (or diverted) what was needed to do a HALO (high altitude, low opening) para drop; the adventure they had makes for a stirring story but luck and courage shouldn't be the core of your plan. I recall a programme about the early days of the special forces Long Range Desert Group in North Africa in WWII, and how when someone asked about food for the long missions behind and back from Rommel's lines, an officer said the men could "live on their fingernails". Is there something about British leadership that prefers Captain Scott to Ernest Shackleton?
And then there is the attitude of the Ministry of Defence to its own when they are most in need. Blakeley was severely injured in a vehicle rollover not long after the Qalat Sikar escapade, and on getting home to recuperate received a form letter warning him that if he was on the sick list for more than 18 months the Army reserved the right to terminate his contract. "It didn't even wish me a get well soon. Nice. I was a war-wounded soldier just a day out of hospital. I'd taken a look at the name of the MOD pen-pusher who'd signed it, and I'd memorised it. I resolved to meet up with him in a dark alleyway sometime in the near future, and get even. It's still on my list of things to do." His spirits were raised instead by a handwritten note from Prince Charles, accompanied by a vintage bottle of the Prince's own Laphroaig. What a contrast; and a similar MOD letter is presumably sent to many others in the same plight. All that Army training manual stress on morale and leadership, and not two minutes' thought given to standard official communication with men at their most vulnerable.
Penny wise, pound foolish. In his SAS memoir "Seven Troop", Andy McNab contrasts the mental health support given to US Special Forces personnel with its lack for their British counterparts, commenting that given the huge expense of recruiting and training elite soldiers, adequate psychological counselling for them would make sense merely from a coldly financial point of view.
The negligent attitude extends to soldiers' families, or used to. When our father broke his back in Aden in the Sixties and subsequently lay crippled in hospital, his pay was frozen until one day our mother packed some food and drink and took my little brother to the Army offices, and told them she and he were staying there until she got something to live on. It worked, but it shouldn't have had to.
It's nice that Mr Cameron has flown out to see the troops in Afghanistan, though I'm not quite sure who is gaining more. Our military commitments are heavy and the future darkly unpredictable, yet thousands of regular soldiers are being made redundant and TAs are expected to take up the reins and defend our country and our national interests on the cheap. Perhaps we should rely less on luck, pats on the back and sentimentality, and weigh the potential costs of defeat against those of adequate defence provision.
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