Charles Cowley and Humphrey Firman VC

Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, comprised of British and Indian troops, captured Kut-al-Amara on 28 September 1915. Townshend was then ordered to press on to Baghdad. He argued that he needed two divisions to do so but obeyed his orders when his protests were overruled.[1]

The British command structure was confused because of the way in which the British ruled India. Townshend’s immediate superior, General Sir John Nixon, answered to the Indian government, comprised of British officials, in Delhi rather than to the War Office in London. Austen Chamberlain, the London based Secretary of State for India, was concerned about the lengthening lines of communication and lack of river transport in a region with poor roads and no  railways. Townshend wrote in his diary that Nixon ‘does not seem to realise the weakness and danger of his lines of communication…the consequences of a retreat are not to be imagined.’[2]

Nixon, however, claimed that marching the troops with land transport and lightening the river boats would avoid any ‘navigation difficulties.’[3] His view was accepted and the advance continued.

On 22 November Townshend’s troops encountered the Ottomans at the ruined ancient city of Ctesiphon, 22 miles from Baghdad. He believed that the enemy had 11,000 men and 40 guns but they actually had 18,000 men and 52 guns.[4] He had 13,756 men, 30 guns and 46 machine guns, not counting those on the gunboats Firefly and Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana or the four 4.7 inch guns on horse boats towed by the armed stern wheelers Sushan and Messoudieh.[5]

Townshend was forced to break off the action on 24 November. The next day his force started to retreat towards Kut, which was reached on 3 December. The lack of transport meant that the wounded, who continued to Basra suffered greatly, first travelling on unsprung 2 wheeled ox carts and then on over-crowded boats with inadequate medical facilities.[6] A. J. Barker argues in his authoritative history of the Mesopotamian Campaign that Nixon was not ‘entirely blameless’ but the [British] Indian government must be regarded as primarily responsible’ for the dreadful medical facilities.[7]

British casualties at Ctesiphon, the retreat and a further action at Umm-at-Tubal totalled 4,970: 711 killed, 3,890 wounded and 369 missing. A Turkish account says that the Ottomans lost over 9,500 men including deserters at Ctesiphon, with another giving their casualties excluding deserters as being 6,188. Their casualties at Umm-at-Tubal were 748.[8]

The British also lost the new gunboat Firefly, which was disabled when a shell hit her boiler and the old gunboat Comet, which ran aground when trying to help her. Sumana managed to rescue their crews with Ottoman soldiers already boarding the two stranded gunboats.[9]

Townshend reported initially that his division could hold out in Kut for two months, which was ‘a somewhat conservative estimate.’[10] By seizing local food supplies, putting his men on short rations and killing his animals for meat Townshend was ultimately able to hold out for nearly five months. His initial estimate forced the relief force to move before it was ready. It is strange that an officer who had made his name in a siege, that of Chitral on the North West Frontier of India in 1895, should make such a mistake.

By 24 April the situation in Kut was so desperate that a highly risky resupply mission had to be mounted. The river steamer Julnar was stripped of all unnecessary woodwork and armoured with protective plating. Manned by an all volunteer crew of Lieutenant Humphrey Firman RN, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Cowley RNVR, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant W. L. Reed RNR and 12 ratings she was to carry 270 tons of supplies to Kut.[11]

Cowley had a great knowledge of the River Tigris, having been employed by the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company. He had been born in Baghdad, was regarded by the Ottomans as being an Ottoman subject, so was likely to be executed if captured.[12] He had been born in Baghdad. He acted as pilot, with Firman captaining the Julnar.

She set off at 8 pm on 24 April, a dark, overcast and moonless night. Heavy artillery and machine gun fire tried to drown out the sound of her engines, but the Ottomans knew that she was coming. She soon came under rifle fire and could make no more than six knots because of a strong current. Ten miles from Kut she came under artillery fire. Two miles later a shell hit her, killing Firman and wounding Cowley, who took command. A few minutes later she struck a cable and drifted onto the right bank of the river. She was stuck, giving Cowley no choice but to surrender.[13]

Cowley was quickly separated from the rest of the crew. The Ottomans claimed first that he was found dead when the Julnar surrendered, then that he was shot whilst trying to escape. It is most likely that he was executed. He was a British subject, but he was aware that the Ottomans would execute him if he was captured.[14]

Cowley and Firman were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The citation, from naval-history.net, states that:

Admiralty, 31st January, 1917.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officers in recognition of their conspicuous gallantry in an attempt to re-provision the force besieged in Kut-el-Amara.:

Lieutenant Humphry Osbaldeston Brooke Firman, R.N.

Lieutenant-Commander Charles Henry Cowley, R.N.V.R.

The General Officer Commanding, Indian Expeditionary Force “D,” reported on this attempt in the following words:

“At 8 p.m. on April 24th, 1916, with a crew from the Royal Navy under Lieutenant Firman, R.N., assisted by Lieutenant-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R., the ‘Julnar,’ carrying 270 tons of supplies, left Falahiyah in an attempt to reach Kut.

Her departure was covered by all Artillery and machine gun fire that could be brought to bear, in the hope of distracting the enemy’s attention. She was, however, discovered and shelled on her passage up the river. At 1 a.m. on the 25th General Townshend reported that she had not arrived, and that at midnight a burst of heavy firing had been heard at Magasis, some 8 1/2 miles from Kut by river, which had suddenly ceased. There could be but little doubt that the enterprise had failed, and the next day the Air Service reported the ‘ Julnar ‘ in the hands of the Turks at Magasis.

“The leaders of this brave attempt, Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and his assistant – Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R. – the latter of whom throughout the campaign in Mesopotamia performed magnificent service in command of the ‘Mejidieh’ – have been reported by the Turks to have been killed; the remainder of the gallant crew, including five wounded, are prisoners of war.

“Knowing well the chances against them, all the gallant officers and men who manned the ‘ Julnar’ for the occasion were volunteers. I trust that.the services in this connection of Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., his assistant, both of whom were unfortunately killed, may be recognised by the posthumous grant of some suitable honour.”

The British Official History of Naval Operations states that all ‘the crew were decorated.[15] The awards of the Distinguished Service Order and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to other members of the crew  were announced on 11 November 1919.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.

Eng. Sub-Lieut. William. Louis Reed, R.N.R. For gallant and distinguished services as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

E.R.A., 2nd Cl., Alexander Murphy, R.N.V.R., O.N. (Mersey) Z3/182. For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

P.O., 1st Cl., William Rowbottom, O.N. J2953 (Ch.). For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

The award of the Distinguished Service Medal to a group of ten ratings, listed on Naval-History.net, was announced the same day. It is likely that they were the other members of the crew, but the citations for the award of the DSM are not available.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

A.B. Herbert Blanchard, O.N. J13427 (Po.).

A.B. William Bond, O.N. J8490 (Dev.).

Ldg. Sto. Herbert Cooke, O.N. K6470 (Ch.).

Sea. John Featherbe, R.N.R., O.N. 6973A.

Sto., Ist.Cl., George William Forshaw, O.N. K18513 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Samuel Fox, O.N. S.S.110714 (Po.).

A.B. Harry Ledger, O.N. J9539 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Charles Thirkill, O.N. S.S. 115464 (Dev.).

A.B. Alfred Loveridge Veale, O.N. 215734 (R.F.R. Dev./B5936).

A.B. Montagu Williams, O.N. J44546 (Ch.).

The failure of Julnar’s mission meant that the only supplies available to the garrison of Kut were the tiny amounts that could be dropped by the small number of low performance aircraft available. Attempts were made to negotiate an end to the siege, but the Ottomans were not interested in British offers of gold or guns or prisoner exchanges in return for allowing the garrison of Kut to return to India or the fact that they would have to care for a large number of sick prisoners if the garrison surrendered. Townshend therefore surrendered Kut on 29 April.[16]

The Ottomans treated Townshend very well, his officers reasonably and his men very badly in captivity. During the siege 1,025 men were killed, 721 died of disease, 2,446 were wounded and 72 went missing. 247 civilians were killed and 663 wounded. Nearly 12,000 men went into captivity, of whom over 4,000 died. Their treatment eventually improved after representations from the US and Dutch Ambassadors.[17] Townshend’s reputation never recovered from his failure to inquire into the fate of his men whilst he lived in luxury in Istanbul. His performance in the campaign until Ctesiphon had actually been good: see this post.

 

 

[1] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), pp. 91-92.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 89.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 227; F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. ii, p. 71.

[6] See D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, Dsm, Rn in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). for the experiences of a Royal Navy seaman in Mesopotamia. Chapter 48 describes the battle and Chapters 49-60 his evacuation after being wounded.

[7] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 106.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 229.

[9] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 228-29.

[10] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 228.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 90.

[12] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 212.

[13] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 90-91.

[14] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, p. 435, footnote.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 91, footnote 1.

[16] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, pp. 452-57.

[17] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 459-466.

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Frank’s panda in Burma

As it turns out, Red Stahley wasn’t the only member of the family who had an interesting pet experience during the war.  My uncle, Frank Morris, serving in the Army in Burma was the proud own…

Source: Frank’s panda in Burma

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SS Sussex Torpedoed by U-Boat 24 March 1916

In February 1916 Germany announced that from 1 March its U-boats would sink defensively armed British merchant ships without warning. Germany had, under pressure from the USA, abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915. The Germans claimed that British defensively armed merchantmen had been ordered to attack U-boats before being attacked themselves, so could not be regarded as acting defensively. The Admiralty quickly disproved this accusation by publishing the actual orders.[1]

The German position on the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘somewhat confusing’.[2] The naval and military commanders wanted to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare but Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg were concerned about US opinion. The US government opposed the treatment of armed merchant ship as warships.

Following a conference on 4 March the Kaiser accepted that unrestricted warfare was necessary, with a likely start date of 1 April. Until then, Bethmann Hollweg should attempt to persuade the Americans to accept the German view. In the interim U-boats were authorised to sink enemy merchant ships in the war zone and armed ones outside it. Passenger liners, whether armed or not, could not be attacked anywhere by submerged U-boats. Halpern describes this as ‘sharpened’ rather than unrestricted submarine warfare.[3]

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German battlefleet had not been invited to the 4 March meeting. He resigned as State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, a job mainly concerned with administration and naval building, soon afterwards.

The Germans had 52 U-boats in March 1916, compared with 29 or 30 when they began unrestricted submarine warfare a year before. Of these 16 were in the North Sea, 20 small and short ranged ones with the Flanders Flotilla, 4 in the Baltic, 7 in the Adriatic and 5 at Istanbul. It was expected that another 38 would be completed by August.[4]

Several Dutch merchant ships were sunk in March, including the 13,911 liner Tubantia, the largest neutral ship sunk during the war. The Dutch were angered by these losses, but the attitude of the USA was far more important to the Germans.[5]

On the afternoon of 24 March the 1,353 ton French packet Sussex was torpedoed and badly damaged by UB29 (Oberleutnant Herbert Pustkuchen) whilst making her regular run from Folkestone to Dieppe with over 325 passengers. The Germans claimed at first that she had hit a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found after she had been towed into Boulogne.[6]

The 50 dead included some of the 25 Americans on board. Pustkuchen claimed that he assumed from her crowded decks that she was a troopship.[7] British troopships then crossed at night between Folkestone and Boulogne.[8] The Germans may not have known that and Pustkuchen, with the very limited view offered by a periscope, may have genuinely thought that he was firing at a troopship. His action, however, created a major diplomatic incident with the USA.

On 19 April US President Woodrow Wilson told Congress that that unless the Germans abandoned ‘their present method of warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Government altogether.’[9]

On 20 April the Germans agreed to stop sinking merchant ships without warning. Four days later Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the recently appointed C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, recalled all his U-boats from the North Sea on the grounds that there was no point in sending boats on dangerous missions when their actions were so restricted. This left only the short ranged boats of the Flanders Flotilla operating against Allied shipping in British waters.[10]

The following table shows Allied shipping losses to U-boats since the end of the period of unrestricted submarine warfare. Sinkings rose in April and May and then fell again, especially outside the Mediterranean, to which several U-boats were transferred in September 1915 so that they could raid Allied commerce in an area where the risk of killing Americans was reduced, although not eliminated. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[11]

Merchant shipping Losses to U-boats
Total Mediterranean
Month Ships Gross tons Ships Gross tons
Oct-Dec 1915 140 361,326 80 293,423
January 1916 25 49,610
February 1916 44 95,090
March 1916 69 160,536
April 1916 83 187,307
May 1916 63 119,381 37 72,092
June 1916 63 93,193 43 67,125

Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 308.

The Germans thought that unrestricted submarine warfare was their best chance of forcing Britain out of the war. However, it also risked bringing the USA into the war on the Allied side. In 1916 they had too few U-boats to achieve the former but pursuing this strategy could still cause the latter.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 94.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 305.

[3] Ibid., p. 306.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 307.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 307.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[9] Quoted in R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 88.

[10] Ibid., p. 89.

[11] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

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First Successful Use of Depth Charges on 22 March 1916

Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant vessels with heavy but concealed armaments, were used by the British to combat U-boats. Submarines often surfaced to sink small merchant ship with their deck guns in order to conserve their torpedoes for more attractive. One of the Q-ships was HMS Farnborough, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Gordon Campbell, which was armed with five 12 pounders, two 6 pounders, a Maxim machine gun, rifles and depth charges.[1] She had originally been the collier Loderer. Her crew as a Q-ship was 11 officers and 56 men, compared with six officers and 25 men as a collier.[2]

On 22 March Farnborough was off the coast of Kerry when SM U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo that missed her. The U-boat surfaced and fired a shot across the bows of what appeared to be a collier. The crew apparently abandoned ship, but the gun crews had remained behind.

U68 closed to 800 yards and opened fire. The collier then raised the white ensign and opened fire. U68 was hit but managed to dive. Campbell then took Farnborough over her and dropped a depth charge. The U-boat came out of the water at a perpendicular angle, revealing damage to her bow. Farnborough fired five more shots into her and then dropped two more depth charges as she dived. Oil and wood then came to the surface and U68 was lost was all hands.[3]

The British first ordered depth charges in August 1915 and began to issue them to the fleet in January 1916. This was the first ever sinking of a submarine by depth charges.[4]

Campbell was promoted to Commander and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Two of the other officers received the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[5]

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 101.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 14.

[3] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 101.

[4] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 350.

[5] (Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 101.

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The Man Who Survived 3 Sinkings in the First World War and the Titanic

John Priest, born in Southampton in 1887, was one of the few firemen (stokers) to survive the sinking of the Titanic on 14 April 1912. The firemen had a long way to go to get from the boiler rooms to the deck.  An article on the BBC website claims that most of the lifeboats had left by the time that Priest made it and he had to swim for his life in very cold water. The Encyclopedia Titanica, however, says that he was in a lifeboat, probably number 15.

He had previously been on board a ship called the Asturias that was, according to the BBC website linked above, involved in a collision on her maiden voyage in 1907. The Asturias was completed in 1907 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and served as a hospital ship in the First World War. She was beached on the English coast on 20 March 1917 in order to prevent her sinking after she was torpedoed by the U-boat UC66. I have not been able to find any other mention of her being involved in a collision on her maiden voyage, so it may have been a minor accident.

Priest was on board the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic on 20 September 1911 when she collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke. The cruiser, which was sunk by U9 In October 1914, as related here, was the more seriously damaged of the two.

In February 1916 he was a member of the crew of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara, a sister ship of the Asturias. She was one of a number of merchant liners requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed, in her case with six 6 inch and two 3 pounder guns and depth charges. She was assigned to the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which was helping to enforce the Allied blockade of the Central Powers.

By 28 February the squadron had lost one ship to weather, two to mines and three to U-boats but none to enemy surface ships, although the Grand Fleet boarding ship Ramsay had been sunk on 8 August 1915 by a raider flying Russian colours.[1]

On 28 February the Admiralty warned the Grand Fleet that a German raider was attempting to break out into the Atlantic. Just after 8 am on 29 February Alcantara (Captain T. E. Wardle), which had been about to return to port after transferring secret documents to her newly arrived sister ship HMS Andes (Captain G. B. W. Young), was ordered to remain on her patrol station.[2]

Alcantara spotted smoke at 8:45 am and soon afterwards received a signal from Andes stating ‘Enemy in sight steering N.E. 15 knots.’[3] This was followed by a second signal that Alcantara took to mean that the enemy had two funnels. However, the signal log of Andes did not mention funnels until 9:10, when it stated that the vessel had a ‘black funnel.’[4] Alcantara’s times appear to be 20 minutes earlier than those of Andes.

Alcantara closed on the smoke, which belonged to a one funnelled steamer flying Norwegian colours and bearing the name Rena on her stern. Wardle assumed that she was a different ship from the one in Andes’s 8:45 signal, but at 10:14 am a signal from Andes revealed that they were the same vessel.[5]

The ship was the German raider SMS Greif (Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Tietze), converted from the tramp steamer Guben, which been under construction at the outbreak of war. She had been designed with two funnels, but one was removed when she was requisitioned by the German Admiralty. She had a concealed armament of four 5.9 inch and one 4.1 guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes.[6]

It is impossible to give a detailed account of the subsequent action because the reports of Wardle and Young differ greatly. Greif dropped her Norwegian colours, revealed her guns and opened fire when Alcantara was about 1,000 yards away. A close range battle then took place, with Andes joining in whenever Alcantara was not in the way. Andes had been 7,500 yards away when the action began and stayed at 6,000 yards range in order to stay out of torpedo range.[7]

Grief’s crew began to abandon ship after about 15 minutes but Alcantara, which had been hit by a torpedo, was sinking by 10:45 am. The light cruiser HMS Comus and the destroyer HMS Munster then appeared. Comus and Andes fired on Greif, which was still flying the German ensign, until she sank at 1 pm, whilst Munster picked up survivors. The rescue was briefly suspended after mistaken reports of submarines.[8]

The British picked up 220 out of about 360 men on board Greif, with 69 of Alcantara’s crew being lost.[9] Wardle and Priest were amongst the survivors, but Tietze, the last man to try to leave Greif, was not.[10] Alcantara’s dead are listed towards the bottom of this page on Naval-History.net.

The Admiralty said that Wardle and his crew had ‘fought their ship in a very creditable way.’[11] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

John Priest then joined the crew of the Britannic, the Olympic and Titanic’s sister ship, which was serving as a hospital ship. On 21 November 1916 she struck a mine and sank near the Greek island of Kea. Thirty died, but the survivors included Priest and two other Titanic survivors: Violet Jessop, a stewardess who had become a nurse, and Archie Jewell, a lookout.

Priest’s fourth sinking occurred on 17 April 1917 when he was a fireman on board the hospital ship Donegal, which was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel. He received a head injury but survived. Jewell, however, was amongst the 40 dead.

John Priest died on land in 1937 at the age of 50.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vii, 19: Tenth Cruiser Squadron i. p. 58.

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. note 3, p. 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 60.

[6] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 174.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vii. p. 61.

[8] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[9] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iii, pp. 271-72.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 177.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 272.

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World War Three Inside the War Room

The BBC recently broadcast a documentary in its This World series titled World War Three: Inside the War Room. For UK viewers, it is available on the I-Player until 5 March 2016 from the BBC website, which says that:

Following the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in Syria, the world is closer to superpower confrontation than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Now, a war room of senior former British military and diplomatic figures comes together to war-game a hypothetical ‘hot war’ in eastern Europe, including the unthinkable – nuclear confrontation.

Ten former diplomats, civil servants, generals, admirals and politicians formed a committee that had to discuss the British response to a crisis in the Baltic. They were making recommendations to the government, which would need the support of Parliament to deploy troops. They were not decision makers.

Actors played the parts of locals and Russian and NATO troops in news reports and also the British Representative to NATO and the National Security Advisors of Germany, Russia and the USA. The only politicians named were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The unnamed US President was in favour of firm action. Use of the phrase ‘Coalition of the Willing’ suggests that it was probably a Republican Administration.

The members of the committee were:

Sir Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador to the United States, 1997-2003.

General Richard Shirreff, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, 2011-2014.

Baroness Falkner, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman.

Baroness Neville-Jone, Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism, 2010-11.

Admiral Lord West, First Sea Lord, Chief of Naval Staff, 2002-2006.

Sir Tony Brenton, British Ambassador to Russia, 2004-2008.

Lord Artbuhnot, Chair of Defence Select Committee, 2005-2014.

Dr Ian Kearns, Specialist Advisor, National Security Strategy, 2010.

Dona Muirhead, Director of Communication, Ministry of Defence, 1997-2000.

Ian Bond, Ambassador to Latvia, 2005-2007.

One weakness was that the politicians were rather junior for a committee of this importance. Presumably none of the several former Defence and Foreign Secretaries no longer active in party politics were willing to appear.

The exercise was a wargame of the type carried out by governments across the world to look at their responses to potential crises and to identify common themes.

The crisis began with scuffles at the site of former Soviet War Memorial in Tallinn, which led to rioting. Nearly 25% of the population of Estonia are Russians, many of whom claimed that the Estonian police discriminated against them and brutally. The Estonian government accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the violence. Putin condemned Estonia’s treatment of Russians as disgraceful. This made NATO fear that he might exploit the situation to stir up more violence.

In the Latvia the Latgalian-Russian Union took control of the city of Daugavpils in Latgale province near the Russian border and the Mayor announced a referendum on greater autonomy from Riga. The Latvian government said that the referendum was illegal and accused those behind it of being in the pay of the Kremlin.

Riot police and then the Latvian Army were sent in to restore order. The separatists were in control of a 20km of the border with Russia. The Latvian government claimed that large numbers of armed Russians had crossed the border illegally.

The British Representative to NATO in Brussels said that the USA would support action, he was unsure about Germany, Spain and Italy would fall in behind it and he could not read French intentions. The basis of NATO is that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies.

The US NSA stated that the President was pushing to deploy NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which was needed in order to dissuade the Russians from going further. The Latvians needed weapons, with other NATO troops there in supporting role only. The committee had to decided the answer to this and other questions as the crisis developed.

A major issue was balancing the risk that firm action would escalate the crisis into a nuclear war and the risk that making concessions would lead to further Russian demands.

One interesting point was that the dovish members of the committee referred to the lessons of the First World War, where many follow Prof. Christopher Clark’s view that Europe ‘sleepwalked’ into war in 1914. The hawkish ones pointed to the lessons of the 1930s, where a failure to stand up to dictators early on led to the Second World War.

Another was that the nuclear ballistic missile carried by British submarines (SSBN) are not targeted at anybody, but the SSBNs’ high state of readiness means that they can be targeted quickly. Once targeted, they are aimed at military installations rather than population centres, meaning that, as one of the committee said, British nuclear missiles will kill tens of thousands rather than millions.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!

DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW HOW THE CRISIS ENDED.

PLEASE ALSO NOTE THAT COMMENTS MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS.

 

 

 

 

The committee voted 5-4 to agree to the commitment of the NATO VJTF, which includes about 1,000 British troops. A suggestion of resorting to cyber warfare instead was rejected. The NATO Council agreed to the deployment. The committee chairman, Sir Christopher Mayer, did not vote throughout. Presumably he would have had a casting vote.

Four British soldiers were captured by the separatists. The generals believed that a rescue mission had a high chance of success, since intelligence was good and the Russians might be reluctant to show their hand. It was approved and succeeded.

A Russian jet then crashed, just on the Russian side of the border. Putin claimed it was a provocation, NATO said it was an accident.

Fifteen Latvian soldiers were then killed in a helicopter crash. NATO claimed that it was hit by a surface to air missile (SAM) fired from inside Russia. The US, Poland, Baltic states were keen on a NATO counter strike on the SAM battery but Germany was getting ‘wobblier.’

Doing so risked a hot war, but a failure to respond could lead to Russia pushing forward. There was a preference to attack a target in Latvia and no consensus for an attack on Russian soil. It would be necessary to take out full air defence system, an act of war that might cause a nuclear response. It was decided to make it clear we know they did it and that the next attack will be responded to.

Next, a column of 300 Russian trucks entered Latvia. Russians said it carried humanitarian aid, the Latvians arms and ammunition. It was escorted by elite Russian Guards Air Assault troops. It was pointed out that the first Russian convoy into Ukraine did carry humanitarian aid.

Putin proposed that all foreign countries should withdraw, the UN take over the humanitarian role, the referendum take place and NATO re-commit to not stationing permanent troops in Baltic states. Was this a basis for discussion with the referendum the sticking point or exactly what Putin wanted?

The US thought that there were too many troops on the ground and wanted Russian troops out of Latvia in 72 hours and restoration of full Latvian territorial integrity. It was prepared to use force if the Russians did not leave. It was noted that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is part of Russian doctrine. The US proposal was supported 5-4 and then backed by Parliament.

The NATO naval Task Force in the Baltic was close to the Russian Baltic Fleet. Putin announced that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed to Kaliningrad and that Russia was ready to repel any aggression against Russian people or territory.

The response to this was to make intensive diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions whilst targeting British nuclear missiles against Russia and to let the Russians know that this had been done. Admiral West did not attend future meetings as he was dealing with this.

The German priority was to seek a ceasefire. Many Europeans wanted the deadline extended. The US thought that if Putin wanted fragmentation of NATO he was succeeding and talked of a Coalition of the Willing, comprising US, France, Baltic states, Poland. Workable. It was argued that joining gave the UK the right of consultation. The proposal to join Coalition of the Willing after first trying diplomacy was passed 7-1. Baroness Falkner was the only committee member to always oppose taking action.

Overnight the US launched an offensive to re-take Daugavpils. The pro-Russian separatists suffered heavy casualties and four British soldiers were killed.

A nuclear missile then exploded over the Baltic, sinking the amphibious assault ships HMS Ocean and USS America. Over 1,200 British sailors and marines were killed. US casualties were not given, but the America carries up to 3,000 sailors and marines. The Russians claimed that the local commander exceeded his authority and would be ‘dealt with.’ All their tactical and strategic nuclear weapons had been taken off the highest state of readiness.

Proof of what Russians say is whether they now withdraw from Latvia. The US President, however, decided on a limited like for like nuclear strike on military target. The British opposed this and wanted the ground campaign to continue.

The US destroyed a target in Russia with a tactical nuclear weapon. Russian ICBMs were then readied for launch. If any were fired at the UK, the British would have only a few minutes to decided what instructions to give their SSBN captains. The vote was 5-3 against firing since deterrence had failed and there was no point in killing Russians to avenge dead Britons.

I was a little puzzled by the final vote since it is well known that there is a letter of last resort, written by the Prime Minister, in the safe of every British SSBN, telling the captain what to do if he is certain that the UK has been destroyed by a nuclear attack.

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Quite amazing blog

Blog full of excellent pictures of ships. Thanks to Pierre Lagacé’s equally excellent Lest We Forget blog for the link.

Lest We Forget

Click here.

This blogger has stopped blogging since 2014.

What he did is most impressive work.

If you like ships of course.

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