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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 Presumably none of the several former Defence and Foreign Secretaries no longer active in party politics were willing to appear.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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Normandy 44: The Battle Beyond D-Day

Many programmes about D-Day, or Operation Overlord, have been broadcast recently because of the 70th anniversary. One that took a slightly different approach was a BBC documentary introduced by James Holland called Normandy ’44: The Battle Beyond D-Day, which told the story of the entire Normandy campaign rather than just the events of 6 June 1944. Holland argued that ‘the Americans were not so dominant, the Germans so skilful or the British so hapless’ as is commonly believed.

Holland argued that the story is usually told from ”a predominantly American perspective, with the British effort often relegated to little more than an amateurish sideshow.’ He noted that there are three levels to warfare: strategy, the overall goals of the leaders; tactics, the actual fighting; and operational, the nuts and bolts, the logistical link between the first two. The third is often ignored.

His programme featured interviews with British veteran tank commander David Render of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, German veteran Johannes Werner, several historians, including Stephen Prince of the British Naval Historical Branch, Professor John Buckley of Wolverhampton University and Peter Caddick-Adams of Cranfield University and weapons experts. There were also readings from the diary of Stanley Christopherson, another Sherwood Rangers tank commander, and two German generals, Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, and Sepp Dietrich, commander of the X SS Panzer Korps. Christopherson’s son David also took part.

Sea control stretching across the world was required to bring all the necessary supplies to France, as well as 2 million men from North America, 1.5 million from the USA and 0.5  million from Canada.

The Germans had 58 divisions in France on 6 June, but only six were Panzer or Panzer Grenadiers. The others were largely static infantry divisions, dependent on horse power. They had to be overcome on 6 June before the armour and mechanised infantry could reach the beaches.

The beaches were defended by MG34 or MG42 dual purpose machine guns in concrete bunkers. These had a much higher rate of fire than a British Bren light machine gun. This gave them a very distinctive sound. However, an MG34 took 115 man hours to manufacture and an MG42 75 hours, compared with 50 for a Bren.

The German machine gun’s high rate of fire meant that their barrels had to be changed frequently. The bunkers were sited on forward slopes, meaning that the Germans could not evacuate wounded or bring reinforcements or more ammunition forward once the fighting had begun. Very heavy casualties were inflicted by the German machine guns on the early waves of US troops landing on Omaha Beach, but the Germans fire died down as they suffered casualties, ran short of ammo and their guns over heated.

Panzer divisions moving to the invasion beaches were attacked continually from the air. Bayerlein reported that his division took two days and a nights to reach Caen. On 7 June it lost 85 or 86 armoured vehicles, 123 trucks, 5 tanks and 23 half tracks through air attacks.

Holland argued that, despite personality clashes,  the Allied command structure under General Dwight Eisenhower ‘was more efficiently structured’ than the German one. He also contended that the abilities of General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at this stage in command of all Allied land forces in Normandy, have been obscured by his tendency to annoy people.

The plan for Overlord was largely devised by Montgomery. He stressed the need to quickly form a continuous bridgehead and to capture Cherbourg and the high ground to the south and south east of Caen. It was a major junction of roads, railways and a river. He intended that the bulk of the German panzers should be drawn into the British and Canadians on the eastern flank, allowing the Americans in the west freedom to manoeuvre south.

Caen is the major query over Montgomery’s plan. It was supposed to be taken on 6 June, with the Allies reaching Paris within 90 days. This required a single British division to move 10 miles inland from Sword Beach on D-Day itself. Intelligence showed that German forces in the area had been reinforced in May, but a lack of landing craft meant that it was not possible to increase the British force heading for Caen.

Something that Montgomery did get right was the need to build up forces as fast as possible. The Allies did not control a port in Normandy, so they took their their own, the Mulberry Harbours. At their peak, they landed 7,000 tons a day. However, everything had to be ferried ashore by landing craft on D-Day, meaning that the men heading for Caen were lightly equipped. They were held up for a day a bunker complex, named Hillman by the Allies, which covered the Caen road and could not be by passed.

The German Tiger tank was feared by the Allies. It was a formidable opponent, but it used 5 litres of fuel per kilometre, compared with 2 for the American built Sherman, the most common Allied tank in Normandy. The Germans were short of fuel, the Allies were not. Additionally, the Tiger’s complex transmission system was vulnerable to breakdowns.

The German 88mm gun, fitted to the Tiger, fired its shells at a fearsome velocity, but so did the British 17 pounder, fitted to some Shermans, termed Fireflies. This made the normally undergunned Sherman a threat to the Tiger. However, Tigers could wreak havoc, as at Villars Bocage on 12 June, where the SS tank ace Michael Wittmann massacred a British column.

David Render, a British tank officer in Normandy, said that the Allies had a more team based approach. Troops of tanks would work together, with the destruction of an enemy tank being attributed to the troop rather than to an individual commander as was the case with the Germans.

Villars Bocage was of little strategic significance in itself, and it cost the Germans several Tigers, fighting in an urban area without infantry support. However, it signalled the start of a lengthy battle of attrition for Caen. Wittman and his crew were killed by a Sherman Firefly later in the Normandy campaign.

At the same time the Americans were being held up by difficult terrain of the bocage, small fields surrounded by high hedgerow. Shermans could not get through the hedges to support the infantry. If they tried to go over them, they would expose their poorly armoured undersides.

The problem was solved by the ingenuity of Curtis Culin, a US National Guardsman who had worked in a garage before the war. He came up with a hedge cutter that could be fitted to a Sherman. It was made from German beach obstacles and did not require great skill on the part of the welders, meaning that it could be manufactured quickly in the field. Culin’s prototype was ready to be demonstrated in a week, and 60% of US Shermans were fitted with his hedge cutters a fortnight later. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and survived the war, but lost a leg in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.

Culin’s invention and its quick adoption showed the combination of ingenuity and fast moving flexibility that gave the Americans an advantage at the operational level.

The Germans concentrated large numbers of tanks near Caen. The British had advanced less than 10 miles from their beaches.  This looked unimpressive on the map, but gave them a major logistical advantage. The battles around Caen are usually portrayed as the British battering their heads against a brick wall, but Holland argued that it was the other way round. The Germans had a reputation for tactical excellence, but they could always be relied upon to counter attack. The Allies had only to probe forward, wait for the German counter attack and destroy it with their superior firepower.

Allied units, unlike German ones, could be resupplied and kept up to strength. The Sherwood Rangers were part of a brigade of three regiments each with 50 tanks. It received 1,073 new tanks during the campaign in order to keep 150 in the field. The Germans built only 1,500 Tigers during the war. David Render came out of three tanks in the campaign. Stanley Christopherson used five in a day in the desert campaign.

Stephen Prince argued that the Allied system built up and sustained larger numbers throughout the campaign. They had complete air superiority. The millionth Allied soldier arrived in Normandy on 12 July. The Germans started strong, but had to solve crises by taking troops from support functions. This worked for a while, keeping the Allies closer to the beach than they had intended. However, by late July the Allies had built up their forces and were able to break through the Germans, who could no longer stop them.

A major British offensive, Operation Goodwood, was launched on 18 July with huge air, naval and artillery support. It was to be followed by an American attack at St Lo. However, it advanced only seven miles, one for every 1,000 tons of bombs dropped. Montgomery had claimed that it would be a massive killer blow in order to get the air power that he wanted. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy, tried to get Montgomery sacked.

Holland argued that Montgomery was good at speaking to troops and the press, but bad at dealing with his peers and superiors. Goodwood would not have been so controversial had he explained his plan properly. 400 British tanks  were knocked out in Goodwood, but 300 of them were repaired and back in action in days. Montgomery was focussed only on Normandy, but Eisenhower had to look at a bigger picture, including the need to capture V1 launch sites and the greater progress being made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

The Americans launched Operation Cobra, the follow up to Goodwood, on 25 July. The Germans, over-stretched at Caen, were unable to resist the US offensive and were forced to retreat. A counter attack with all remaining German reserves was launched on 7 August. It failed and the Germans were forced back to Falaise. There were so many corpses that Werner had to walk on them. On 12 June he was part of a company of 120 men. Nine of them survived the campaign.

Allied casualties averaged 6,500 killed, wounded and captured on each of the 77 days of the Normandy campaign. Peter Caddick-Adams argued that in that time the Allied armies underwent a learning process the equivalent of which had taken four years in the First World War.

The campaign did not go to the initial plan, because the Germans tried to hold the Allies closer to the beaches than they had expected. However, the Allies moved very quickly once they had broken out of Normandy. They had planned to take Paris after 90 days, but were actually in Brussels 90 days after D-Day.

 

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The Nazi Killers – UK Channel 5 TV

Channel 5 in the UK broadcast a documentary called The Nazi Killers on Friday 22 November. For UK viewers it is available on the 5 Demand online catch up service until 22 December. According the filmmakers’ website, it has been shown in other countries at various film festivals and on the Discovery and History channels under the title The Real Inglorious Bastards.

Channel 5’s website describes the programme as follows:

Documentary exploring one of the hundreds of undercover missions launched by the US government’s Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Operation Greenup consisted of two young Jewish refugees and one Wehrmacht officer, who parachuted one winter night into the Austrian Alps and risked their lives to strike back at Nazi Germany.

It featured a few re-enactments, but most of the story was told by the two Jewish refugees, Hans Wijnberg and Fred Mayer, with the widow and son of Franz Weber, the Wehrmacht officer, also contributing.

Mayer was the son of a German WWI veteran. He and his family escaped to the USA in 1938. Wijnberg was sent by his parents, along with his twin brother, from the Netherlands in 1939to live with his father’s business partner in the USA in 1939. His parents and younger brother were all murdered in the Holocaust.

Both men joined the US Army, and were then approached to join the OSS, the US intelligence service, because of their language skills. It trained them for operations behind enemy lines. Mayer was put in command of Operation Greenup, with Wijnberg as his radio operator.

Their mission was to gather intelligence in the Tirol region of Austria. It was feared that the Nazis would establish an Alpine redoubt in order to make a last stand there. The team  needed somebody with local knowledge, and Franz Weber, an anti-Nazi local who had deserted from the German Army to the Allies, volunteered to join it.

The three were to be dropped by parachuted near Innsbruck in February 1945. It was difficult to find a suitable drop point, as the obvious places were all occupied by the enemy. A pilot called Billings volunteered to drop them on a glacier. All three landed safely with most of their equipment, but the canister containing their skis was lost. They therefore had to walk in deep snow to Oberperfuss, Weber’s home village. There they were helped by his family.

Operation Greenup’s purpose was intelligence gathering. Mayer obtained a German uniform and impersonated a wounded officer. This enabled him to pick up information from other German officers, which Wijnberg relayed back to the OSS. One of their pieces of intelligence enabled the Allied air forces to bomb a large number of trains in a nearby marshalling yard.

Mayer was then ordered to investigate a nearby underground factory that was building Me 262 jet fighters. He infiltrated it by obtaining work as an electrician, using a French translation of his own name, discovering that supply problems with parts meant that no aircraft were being completed.

Mayer was then betrayed and captured. Wijnberg and Weber had to flee, whilst Mayer was tortured by the Gestapo. His two interrogators discounted the possibility that he might be Jewish, because their anti-Semitism meant that they refused to believe that a Jew could be brave enough to withstand their tortures.

The interrogation was watched by a third man, who eventually took Mayer to the house of Franz Hofer, the local Gauleiter [Nazi Party boss]. By this time Hofer, like many Nazis, realised that the war was lost and was interested only in surrendering to the Western Allies rather than the Soviets. Mayer was allowed to send a message to the OSS. When US troops approached Innsbruck he met them and informed them that the city was willing to surrender.

The documentary ended with Fred Mayer talking to Hans Wijnberg via Skype. Wijnberg died shortly afterwards.

Both programme titles are somewhat misleading, since the members of Operation Greenup were tasked with gathering intelligence rather than directly killing Nazis, and the only connection with the film Inglorious Basterds is that they were American Jews operating behind enemy lines.

It was a good documentary. There were some contributions from historians, mainly to set things in context, and some re-enactments in the absence of archival footage, but the story was told largely in Mayer and Wijnberg’s own words.

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Churchill’s First World War – BBC4

On 30 July 2013 BBC4 broadcast a documentary called Churchill’s First World War. The BBC website describes it as follows:

Drama-documentary about Winston Churchill’s extraordinary experiences during the Great War, with intimate letters to his wife Clementine allowing the story to be told largely in his own words. Just 39 and at the peak of his powers running the Royal Navy, Churchill in 1914 dreamt of Napoleonic glory, but suffered a catastrophic fall into disgrace and humiliation over the Dardanelles disaster.

The film follows his road to redemption, beginning in the trenches of Flanders in 1916, revealing how he became the ‘godfather’ of the tank and his forgotten contribution to final victory in 1918 as Minister of Munitions. Dark political intrigue, a passionate love story and remarkable military adventures on land, sea and air combine to show how the Churchill of 1940 was shaped and forged by his experience of the First World War.

The programme was billed as being a drama-documentary, but the dramatisations were fairly limited: scenes of Churchill (Adam James) in the trenches and making a speech and shots of Clementine (Verity Marshall) at home. Most of it consisted of comments by experts, archive footage and extracts from private papers. The majority  of these were letters between Winston and Clementine, but there were also extracts from the papers of others, including Admiral Jackie Fisher, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife Margot and Andrew Gibb, an officer in Churchill’s battalion on the Western Front.

Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s political head. In July 1914 the bulk of the fleet was at Portland on the south coast. He decided to move it overnight to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which was, according to Prof. Andrew Lambert of King’s College London, the critical point.

Prof. Gary Sheffield of Birmingham University said that Churchill’s problem was that he was not trusted. He regarded himself as a soldier, perhaps a warrior, and possessed an unquestioning belief in the British Empire, as did most British people at the time.

In 1914 Churchill wanted to be involved in the land campaign, which was then more significant than the war at sea. The RN’s air arm, the RNAS, had sent units to Dunkirk in order to bomb Zeppelin bases, which gave him an opportunity. They were accompanied by armoured cars, which were supposed to protect the airfields, but also undertook what David Tilley, Curator of the Tank Museum, describes as ‘buccaneering patrols.’

Churchill would build on the RNAS’s experience with armoured cars to carry out experiments with trench crossing machines, eventually leading to the development of landships, or tanks. Prof David Ceserani of Royal Holloway London noted that Churchill was a very modern military figure who appreciated the value of science and technology in warfare. However, he was an egomaniac, who had enormous self-confidence and energy, but sometimes struggled to work out what was a good idea and what was a bad one.

On 3 October the port of Antwerp was on the verge of surrender. Holding it would stall the German advance. Churchill rushed the Royal Naval Division, made up of naval reservists without ships and marines, to Antwerp, with some of them travelling in 100 commandeered buses. He wanted to resign his Cabinet post and be appointed a general. According to Sheffield, this caused derision amongst his Cabinet colleagues, who laughed at him.

Antwerp fell on 10 October, and 1,000 member of the RND were interned in the Netherlands. Churchill was branded a reckless adventurer by the Press, although Lambert noted that the extra week that the Germans took to capture Antwerp did make some difference to the war.

Lambert and Sheffield agreed that Churchill wanted to emulate his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough by producing a war winning stroke. He saw Gallipoli as being his chance, but the campaign ended in disaster. Churchill fell out with Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the navy’s professional head, the First Sea Lord. Lambert said that each really wanted the other’s job. The deterioration in their relationship was shown by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, via letters held by that archive.

The failure at Gallipoli meant that the ruling Liberals had to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government. Churchill had originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, but then switched to the Liberals, so was distrusted and disliked by the Conservatives. He lost his job as First Lord, though he remained in the Cabinet.

It was at this time that he took up painting. It had a therapeutic effect on him, although Alice Martin, the House and Collections Manager at Chartwell, his former home, noted that he painted a very dark self-portrait at this time: usually his paintings were bright.

In late 1915 he resigned from the Cabinet, and sought a commission on the Western Front: he was a Major in the Oxfordshire Hussars, a yeomanry [reserve cavalry] unit. He hoped that Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, would give him command of a brigade, but French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig before this could be finalised. Haig gave Churchill command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill was English, but he was MP for a Scottish constituency, Dundee.

It was probably better for Churchill that he was given command of a battalion rather than a brigade; the latter would have been too big a promotion, and would have meant that he would have been out of touch with the average soldier.

Clementine, according to Dr Tiffany Jenkins, agreed. She knew he was under great danger in the trenches, but urged him to stay for the sake of his political career, which was more important to him than his life. Clementine saw Winston’s war lust and realised that she was the only person who could restrain him. She wrote to Asquith defending Winston when he was sacked as First Lord, but Jenkins said that she was really accusing Asquith of being weak.

Packwood noted that Clementine was his defender and anchor in Westminster whilst she was in France. She was very busy, since she was also involved in setting up canteens for munitions workers. She and Winston wrote to each other almost every day whilst he was at the Western Front.

Patrick Hennessey, a former Army officer, noted that Churchill, a cavalry officer commanding an infantry battalion, got off to a disastrous start, but quickly turned it round. He recognised the importance of making the men’s conditions better, and targeted lice. His battalion became, and remained, one of the least lice plagued battalions on the Western Front. His time on the Western Front showed him as caring, focussed and sensitive. He possessed the ability of great military commanders to be imperturbable under fire.

On 7 March 1916 Churchill returned to the House of Commons. He had by then made his peace with Fisher, and made a very badly received speech calling for Fisher to be recalled. He returned to the Front, staying to May, when his battalion was merged with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers because to casualties

Churchill believed in attrition by metal and machines rather than men. He noted that the Allies had lost air superiority, and criticised the government and the generals. He said that: ‘Machines save life. Machine power is a substitute for manpower. Brains will save blood.’ He wanted tanks to be used in a mass attack, so was angry when the secret was given away in November 1916 by an attack of only 50 tanks.

Churchill was close to David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister in late 1916. He hoped that this would mean his return to the government, but Prof. Richard Toye of Exeter University pointed out that Lloyd George was not initially in a strong enough political position to bring Churchill back to office.

By the summer of 1917 U boats were threatening  to starve Britain into submission. Lloyd George took the  risk of appointing Churchill as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 as his spirit and imagination were needed to increase production of the equipment and ammunition required to win the war. Churchill also had the grasp of detail needed to organise munitions production. He was not, however, in the War Cabinet so was excluded from the highest level of strategy and decision-making.

Sheffield commented that Churchill wanted to build up resources, wait for US help and win the war in 1919. However, the Germans took the offensive in March 1918. Ceserani noted that this converted the war into one of manoeuvre in which tanks, trucks and logistics were vital. Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions replaced the huge losses of tanks and guns in March 1918 and provided the enormous quantities of ammunition needed in 1918.

At Amiens in August 1918 the British Empire forces combined the use of tanks, artillery and aircraft to defeat the enemy. This led to the 100 days campaign that culminated in victory.

Lambert argued that the First World War convinced Churchill that he was a man of destiny because he could recover from anything.

The programme showed that Churchill made many mistakes during the First World War, losing office for a while and ending the war with a lesser political position than he had held at its start. However, its conclusion was that during the First World War:

‘No man learnt more of war command. It was a bitter but complete apprenticeship…First would come more wilderness years… But when summoned again, a greater warlord, steeled by the Great War, was ready and prepared to fulfil his destiny.’

For UK viewers, the programme is repeated on BBC4 at 2240 on Thursday 1 August, and is available on the I-Player until 6 August. It will probably be shown again on BBC4: such programmes tend to be shown a lot.

 

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Spying on Hitler’s Army – Channel 4

Channel 4, the British TV channel, recently broadcast a drama-documentary titled Spying on Hitler’s Army: The Secret Recordings. It showed how the UK obtained intelligence from German PoWs by secretly recording their conversations. The initial interrogations of prisoners decided which ones could be useful sources of intelligence. They were then sent to one of three stately homes, where they lived in comfortable conditions, not knowing that their conversations were being recorded.

The programme focused on Trent Park, just to the north of London, where the inmates (or guests as the British called them) included seven generals; Wilhelm von Thoma, Ludwig Crüwell, Johannes Bruhn, Heinrich Kittel, Paul von Felbert and Dietrich von Choltitz. They were kept in a relaxed atmosphere, even being allowed day trips to London. Their chief captor, who they believed to be Lord Aberfeldy, a distant relative of the Royal Family, acted more like a host to his host guests.

Aberfeldy was actually Ian Monroe, an officer in MI19, the part of British intelligence responsible for obtaining information from enemy prisoners. He asked encouraged his ‘guests’ to speak by asking them leading questions. Even the grounds of Trent Park were bugged; Monroe made certain that he asked his leading questions when near enough to a microphone for it to pick up the reply.

Many of the people who transcribed and translated the prisoners’ comments were German Jewish refugees who had joined the British Army. One of them, Fritz Lustig, was interviewed in the programme. He gave an interview to BBC Radio’s Witness programme late last year; it is available online, apparently without time or geographical restrictions.

At the end of the war the recordings were destroyed and transcripts of the conversations locked away. The transcripts were declassified a few years ago, and are in now available in the UK National Archives. They were discovered there by chance by Prof. Sönke Neitzel, now of the LSE, when he was researching U-boat crewman. He and several other historians appeared in the programme: Helen Fry, author of The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis, Joshua Levine and Col. Kevin Farrell. It also featured Prof. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist who commented on how an ordinary person could become a genocidal murderer.

The programme showed reconstructions of conversations between the German PoWs, interspersed with archive footage and comments by the historians. The actors spoke English, but the dialogue was an accurate translation of what the prisoners actually said.

Much of the programme dealt with the conflict between von Thoma, a patriot but an anti-Nazi, and Crüwell, a Nazi. The other main focus was on war crimes. The transcripts showed that the German Army, not just the SS, had participated in the Holocaust. General von Felbert, who had been sentenced to death by Hitler because he allegedly surrendered too easily, was disgusted by war crimes. General Kittel, however, complained to the SS about mass executions of Jews, but only because they were being carried out in public and the location of the mass graves might lead to his troops’ drinking water being contaminated.

The transcripts gave useful military intelligence as well as information on atrocities. Von Thoma told Crüwell of the existence of the V2 rocket and the importance of the Peenemunde research facility, which was subsequently bombed by the RAF.

Not only officers had their conversations recorded. A private called Pffanberger talked about the terrible conditions and high death rate in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had been an inmate there for seven years because he was suspected of being a communist, until manpower shortages led to him being conscripted into the army.

None of the information used was used in war crimes trials. The British decided that they did not want to give away an intelligence technique that had proved to be very useful in the war, so might be needed again

A very well made and interesting programme, although perhaps not as new a story as the makers seemed to believe, given that Prof. Neitzel’s book on the subject, Soldaten, was published in English early last year and in German in 2011. I did laugh at one point when the German generals, in captivity, berated the other German generals who had just surrendered to the Red Army at Stalingrad.

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The Iraq War – BBC2

On 29 May 2013 BBC2 broadcast the first of a three part series on The Iraq War, billed as being ‘The inside story of the war in Iraq’. The description of the first episode, titled ‘Regime Change’, from the BBC website says that:

The people at the top of the CIA and Saddam’s foreign minister describe just how the US and Britain got it so wrong about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction before the invasion.

Tony Blair recounts how he flew to President Bush’s private retreat at Camp David to go head to head with Vice President Dick Cheney. Colin Powell explains how he came to make his disastrous presentation to the United Nations. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw describes how he – and even President Bush himself – tried to persuade Tony Blair that to join in the invasion was political suicide.

As well as Cheney, Powell, Blair, Straw and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, interviewees included more junior British, French and US officials; Kurdish leaders such as Jalal Talabani, Leader, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Barham Salih, Prime Minister Kurdish Region and Massoud Barzani, Leader Kurdistan Democratic Party; and Iraqis including Salim Jomaili  of the Secret Service, Republican Guard General Raad Hamdani, Foreign Secretary Naji Sabri, UN Ambassador Mohammed Douri and General Hussam Amin, Iraqi liaison to UN weapons inspectors;

Jomaili said that, just after 9/11, the USA asked Iraq, via what was described as ‘a trusted emissary, to help in the War on Terror against Al Qaeda. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz agreed, but President Saddam Hussein argued that UN sanctions against Iraq were also terrorism, and had killed far more than died on 9/11. Jomaili said that USA thought that Iraq was playing games and dropped its request. He also argued that Saddam’s regime was opposed to religious extremists, so did not support Al Qaeda.

After the Afghan Taleban were deposed in early 2002 Cheney turned his attention to what he thought was the next likely source of terror: Iraq. He asked CIA if it was possible to organise a coup. Luis Rueda, the CIA’s Chief of Iraq Operations, explained in the programme that he told Cheney that this was impossible because Saddam had crushed all internal opposition.

The USA therefore turned to the Kurds for intelligence. They had helped the USA in the past, but had suffered as a consequence. They said that it was impossible to remove the regime without external help, and would not be left stranded again.

The USA feared that Saddam would supply Al-Qaeda with nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons of mass destruction (WMD). His army had already used chemical weapons against both Iran and his internal opponents.

In the UK Blair supported the USA, but faced domestic problems. Alastair Campbell, his Head of Communications, said that the head of the Secret Intelligence Service had returned from a trip to the USA believing that war with Iraq was a matter of when, not if. Straw thought that there were two issues: to support the US desire for regime change or just to force Saddam to comply with UN resolutions? Blair thought that the separation was unreal, as Saddam would not comply. Straw pointed out that the UK considered that going to war just to change the regime was illegal.

In Iraq, Hamdani warned Saddam that there was a real risk of war, and that Iraqi weapons were obsolete. He risked his life by trying to point out these home truths to Saddam. However, Saddam, whilst dismissing his fears, took no action against him.

Powell was worried that Bush was being pushed into war; all his briefings were on military operations. Powell thought that the USA needed allies, so convinced Bush to seek new a UN Security Council resolution. Cheney was unhappy; he thought that Saddam was good at deception, and made a public speech criticising the idea of weapons inspectors.

Powell, lacking US allies, looked to the UK, meeting Straw to try to form a coalition. The UK regarded war without another UN resolution as being illegal, and could not have obtained a Parliamentary majority for it.

Blair thought that the UK had to be clear to the USA that it was a firm ally, not a fair weather friend, but would have been in an impossible position if Bush had supported Cheney. However, the President opted for a UN resolution.

Amin said that Saddam thought that the USA and UK would never be satisfied so played for time. Most governments thought that Saddam was lying when he denied having WMD. He had kept some after the Gulf War because he feared an attack by Iran, but later had them destroyed as he was afraid that they would be found. All paperwork relating to them was also destroyed, in case it was later found.

The CIA conducted a global search for evidence about WMD. At one point it thought wrongly that Iraqi Foreign Minister Sabri wanted to defect; see the blog entry on The Spies Who Fooled the World, a previous BBC documentary, for more on this part of the story.

In the UK opposition to the war and demands for more information were rising. Blair presented a dossier prepared by the intelligence services to Parliament; it included the infamous and now discredited claim that Iraq could launch WMD within 45 minutes. Blair admitted that he now wishes that he had just published the intelligence reports.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution  giving Iraq 30 days to prove the absence of WMD unanimously. A 12,000 word Iraqi report was not enough for the USA, according to Stephen Hadley, the  Deputy National Security Adviser.

Bush asked the CIA for the intelligence case for war, and was told by CIA Director George Tenet, who did not appear in the programme, that it was a ‘slam dunk.’ The US case was to be presented to the UN by Powell. He complained that he lacked back up for the assertions made, and was given only the WMD case, not the human rights or terrorism ones. However, Bush had already made up his mind.

One apparently key piece of evidence was a recorded conversation in which Hamdani appeared to tell a subordinate to hide his units’ chemical weapons. Hamdani said that he was only making sure there was no trace of old chemical launchers for the UN to find.

There were huge anti-war demonstrations in 60 countries one weekend in February, including one of a million people in London. Blair needed a second UN Security Council resolution, but Cheney thought that this was a sign of weakness. Hadley said that Bush thought that it was important to go the extra mile for an ally.

The French, according to de Villepin thought that there was not enough evidence to go to war. President Jacques Chirac met Russian President Vladimir Putin and de Villepin met Powell, who said to him ‘don’t underestimate our determination.’ Chirac announced soon afterwards that France would veto the resolution.

The Labour Party whips estimated that half of their MPs would vote against was or abstain without a second resolution. Hadley said that Bush would have preferred the UK dropping out of the coalition to Blair having to resign. However, Blair said that he would prefer to have quit as PM than to have backed down; see the BBC website for an extract from the programme.

The Labour leadership managed to persuade two-thirds of their MPs to back war, enough the vote for war to be passed in the House of Commons with Conservative support. Straw adopted the old British policy of blaming the French; he told Labour MPs that the USA and UK had been forced into war by the French veto as a Security Council Resolution backed by the threat of war would have forced Saddam to stand down.

Three of Saddam’s security team were spying for CIA. They reported that he was at palace on banks of Tigris as war was about to start, giving the USA an opportunity to decapitate the enemy and perhaps win without serious fighting. There was a nightmare that it was disinformation, and some other target such a school would be hit. Cheney recommended taking the chance, and Bush decided to strike as soon as the deadline had expired. Initial reports said that a body resembling Saddam had been taken out of the rubble, but it was not him.

As war was about to start, Saddam told the Republican Guard to go to Palestine to liberate Jerusalem from Israel after they had defeated the USA; ‘a fantasy, a dream’ according to Hamdani. He asked Saddam’s son Qusay if Iraq did have WMD. He was worried that chemical weapons might blow back onto his own troops, but was told ‘don’t worry, we don’t.’

The programme is available for UK viewers on the I-Player until 19 June. The second episode next week recounts how the USA and UK won the war, but lost the peace.

There were a number of co-producers, who will presumably show the programme in their markets: National Geographic, Canal+, NHK, ABC, SVT, NRK, RDI/Radio-Canada, VPRO, DRTV, TVP.

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The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers is a documentary film about Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, made by Dror Moreh. It consisted of interviews with the six living former heads of Shin Bet, interspersed with archive film and some CGI graphics, and told the organisation’s story since 1967. Until then the main threats to Israel were external, so Mossad, the foreign intelligence service was more important than Shin Bet.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 6 Day War in 1967 meant that it faced a security threat from territory that it controlled, so Shin Bet became the more important of the two intelligence services.

The film is divided into seven segments, which give it a roughly chronological order, but also discuss various themes and moral issues that have arisen since 1967, including political direction, torture, targeted assassinations and collateral damage.

The six participants are Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Avi Dichter and  Yuval Diskin.

The seven segments are:

No Strategy, Just Tactics:

This covers the initial stages of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had no strategy for the future of the occupied territories; everything revolved round short-term tactics aimed at reducing terrorism.

These succeeded in cutting the number of attacks hugely, but did nothing to produce a long-term solution, although some Israelis, including Avraham Shalom, wanted a Palestinian state even then.

In order to carry out a census of the occupied territories, Israeli soldiers were taught a small number of relevant Arabic phrases, including ‘We want to count you.’ Unfortunately, a pronunciation error mean that many Israelis actually said that ‘We want to castrate you.’ Shin Bet subsequently set up a very rigorous programme of Arabic lessons for its personnel.

Forget About Morality:

This deals with the hijacking of the 300 bus in 1984. The four hijackers were killed, but it subsequently emerged that two had been captured alive, badly beaten and then killed. The film attributed this to the Israeli Army, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published documents that blame Shalom and Shin Bet.

One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter:

This covers the peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO that culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Opposition to them in both Palestine and Israel resulted in the growth of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and terrorist acts by Israelis.

Our Own Flesh and Blood:

This dealt with terrorism by Israelis who opposed the Oslo Accords. Shin Bet investigations resulted in the arrest and conviction of many of them, but most were released after serving only part of their sentences. On 4 November 1995  Israeli Prime Minister Yithak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an Israeli.

Victory is to See You Suffer:

The title of this segment comes from a comment made by a Palestinian to Ami Ayalon during Israeli-Palestinian talks during the Second Intifada. It means that the Palestinians would regard it as a victory if they could make life for the Israelis as bad as it was for themselves.

Collateral Damage:

This covered the targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and the risk that innocent civilians would also be killed. At one point Shin Bet discovered that the senior command of Hamas would be meeting in a particular building. The Israeli Air Force could have dropped a one ton bomb on it, killing all of them, but also some innocent civilians. The politicians insisted that only a quarter ton bomb should be dropped. This reduced the risk of killing innocents, but meant that the Hamas leaders would be killed only if they were in the upper floor of the two storey building; they were not and survived.

The Old Man at the End of the Corridor:

This came from a belief held by Ami Ayalon when he was a child on a kibbutz that Israel was run by a wise man (David Ben-Gurion) who sat in an office behind at the end of a long corridor and made decisions after thinking things through carefully. When he entered the government, he found the corridor, but there was no door at the end of it.

In this segment the six men reflected on Shin Bet, its activities and the implications for Israel. They all thought that it was necessary for Israel to talk to its enemies, and did not seem to have been impressed by the politicians that they had worked for, apart from Rabin; he was described as understanding security issues so well that they did not have to be explained to him.

A fear was expressed that Israel may end up winning all the battles but losing the war because of stubbornness. The occupation has embittered the occupied and brutalised the occupiers. Avraham Shalom suggested that Israel is treating the Palestinians as the Germans treated the non-Jewish subjects of the countries that they occupied in WWII.

A very powerful film. All six men came across well, speaking openly and honestly. They were aware of the problems that Israel’s actions had created, and feared that its strategy was flawed, but had been in positions where they could only carry out the strategy laid down from above.

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