Tag Archives: UK

A Very British Deterrent – BBC

The BBC recently broadcast a programme called A Very British Deterrent. UK viewers can watch it until 4 October from the BBC website, which describes it as follows:

‘With Trident renewed for another generation, A Very British Deterrent tells the story of the remarkable events, eye-watering costs, power relationships and secret deals done half a century ago to secure Britain’s very first submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In today’s turbulent world, it is a story that is more relevant than ever. At the height of the Cold War, a series of political and technical crises came close to leaving Britain without a nuclear weapon of its own. In a time of unprecedented international tension and with the world locked in a terrifying nuclear arms race, one small loch in Scotland became a crucial bargaining chip to keep Britain in the nuclear game.

Using the personal letters of prime ministers and presidents, eye-witness accounts and once-secret documents, this film explores how the British prime minister Harold Macmillan seized every opportunity to further Britain’s nuclear ambitions, was prepared to trade a Scottish base for a new American weapon, and even jeopardised the crucial Anglo-American relationship to keep Britain an independent nuclear power.’

In 1957 only the USA, USSR and UK had nuclear weapons. In October of that year the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This meant that it was possible to put nuclear weapons into orbit round the Earth.

Macmillan wrote in his diary that this had a similar impact on American confidence to Pearl Harbor, leading to President Dwight D. Eisenhower being for the first time attacked for not being able to defend the country. Macmillan was close to Eisenhower, having been British Minister-in-Residence at his headquarters for a period during WWII.

Three weeks after Sputnik Macmillan visited Eisenhower in the USA, obtaining what he wanted: access to US nuclear secrets. In WWII the USA and UK were full partners in the development of the atomic bomb, but after the war Congress decided that the US should nit share nuclear secrets with anybody.

The UK then developed its own nuclear weapons and by 1957 had bombers armed with hydrogen bombs. The big problem, however, was not the bomb but a delivery system that could penetrate Soviet defences. The UK developed its own missile, Blue Streak, but it took 30 minutes to get its engine ready, compared with a 4 minute warning of a Soviet attack from space. The UK was too small to conceal land based nuclear missiles or to locate them well away from population centres.

The US had a number of nuclear weapon programmes, including a navy one lead by Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations. Burke proposed putting nuclear missiles on nuclear powered submarines rather than land: the Polaris system.

Burke’s British counterpart,  Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, saw Polaris as the solution to the UK’s problem and began a correspondence with Burke, who proposed putting a British officer in the office developing Polaris.

An alternative US project was Skybolt, an air launched nuclear missile with a range of 2,000 miles. It would be cheaper than Polaris because it could be fitted to existing bombers.

In March 1960 Eisenhower and Macmillan met at Camp David, officially to discuss future summit meetings involving themselves and other world leaders. The two, however, also had a meeting at the Eisenhower family farm at Gettysburg. According to Eisenhower’s grandson David, who witnessed their arrival, they were not accompanied by anybody else, not even security personnel.

Eisenhower offered Skybolt, but not Polaris, to the UK. In return he wanted a base for US Polaris submarines in Europe and thought that Scotland was the best location. The cancellation of Blue Streak and the acquisition of Skybolt were soon announced, but the US submarine base in Scotland was at first kept secret. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was then holding mass anti-nuclear demonstrations in the UK.

Eisenhower’s chosen site for the submarine base was not in a remote part of Scotland but at the mouth of the Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow. Macmillan wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a more isolated location but the President wanted a site that offered better access to open seas, good shore facilities and was near an international airport.

Increased international tension meant that Eisenhower wanted to base US Polaris submarines in Scotland as soon as possible. The British felt that this would make it harder to sell to the British population.  Macmillan eventually agreed to the US base at Holy Loch on the Clyde.  He asked that a proposal that US submarines should not be allowed to fire their missiles from within British territorial waters without British consent should be extended to 100 miles. Eisenhower was prepared to offer only a weak assurance about consulting the UK and other allies in the event of a crisis.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became US President. Despite being from a different generation and with a different world view he saw Macmillan as somebody he could turn to in a crisis, speaking to him every day during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of Kennedy’s inner circle argued that the US should not favour one of its European allies over the others by supplying the UK with nuclear weapons. They appeared to have an opportunity to achieve their wish when Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, decided that Skybolt was a waste of money. In early December he unformed the British that all five Skybolt tests so far had failed. The British pointed out that they had cancelled Blue Streak and made themselves completely dependent on the US in return for allowing the US the Holy Loch base.

An Anglo-American crisis then developed. Ahead of a meeting with Macmillan at Nassau in late December Kennedy phoned Eisenhower to check what had actually been agreed. Kennedy’s view was that Skybolt and Holy Loch were separate agreements made at the same time.

The talks between the two leaders at Nassau were fully minuted. Kennedy offered the UK Skybolt, which had cost the US $450m so far, for $100m. Macmillan replied that ‘while the proposed marriage with Skybolt isn’t exactly a shotgun wedding, the virginity of the lady must now be regarded as doubtful.’ Macmillan asked for Polaris and its missiles. Kennedy said that a British Polaris fleet must be: ‘assigned to NATO.’ Macmillan asked what ‘assigned to NATO’ meant and Kennedy replied:

‘that it is in the UK’s interests to define assigned as loosely as possible. These missiles and submarines missiles should be available to the UK for national use only in case of dire emergencies.’

Macmillan thought that this meant ‘a question of absolute survival’ and was concerned that it excluded the defence of British ‘supreme national interests’, such as the British controlled oilfields in Kuwait.

On the second day of the summit Macmillan talked in such a way that made it appear that the UK desired a nuclear deterrent so that it could retain international credibility despite being in decline. He then said that unless the nuclear deterrent could ‘be used when they wish by the British government…he would rather ‘drop the whole idea [and] undertake an agonising reappraisal of our military and political priorities’, suggesting that close ties between the UK and USA might end.

On the third day agreement was reached. The British Polaris submarines would be assigned to NATO but the UK would reserve the right to use them independently, when its ‘supreme national interests’ were at stake.

Macmillan had retired by the time of the 1964 UK General Election in which his Conservatives were defeated by Labour. Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, ordered four Polaris submarines, each costing £600m in current money, despite having previously promised to cancel the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. The submarines and warheads were built in the UK and the missiles bought from the USA. They were based as Faslane, close to the US base at Holy Loch. The USN left in 1992 but the British nuclear force remains at Faslane. Since they came into service in 1969 the UK has always had at least one nuclear missile submarine at sea.

A very interesting programme. Macmillan was very keen to maintain an independent British nuclear deterrent. The only major problems that this gave him with Eisenhower was the President’s insistence on having a nuclear submarine base near a large British city. Later, however, the British decided that the naval and logistic arguments for a base on the Clyde outweighed the political ones for a more remote location. Macmillan initially had more difficulties with the Kennedy Administration. In the end, however, the President put the need to maintain good relations with the USA’s closest ally ahead of the desire of many of his advisers not to favour one European ally over the others.

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UK National Archives Digitises WWI War Diaries

NB: this announcement has been well publicised in the UK, so some of the linked websites are getting a lot of traffic, hence may open slowly for a day or two.

The UK National Archives announced today that it has completed the first stage of the digitisation of the war diaries kept by British Army units during the First World War. Every British Army unit had to keep a daily war diary containing reports on operations, intelligence summaries and other pertinent material. The hard copies of these are held at the NA in series WO 95, but it is now possible to see many of them online, albeit for a fee of £3.36 per diary.

The first stage sees the release of the diaries for the whole war of the seven infantry and three cavalry divisions sent to France and Flanders in 1914. As well as the diaries for the division, its component brigades, infantry battalions, cavalry regiments and supporting artillery, engineer, supply and medical units kept their own diaries. Diaries for units subsequently assigned to one of these divisions are included, not just those that comprised the divisions in 1914.

These diaries are the building blocks of most books written about the British Army in the First World War, going back to the Official Histories. Even books not based on archival research will have used other books that were based on these diaries. Note that these diaries are official military documents kept by unit adjutants. Some media reports seem to assume that they are the private diaries of individual soldiers.

A project called Operation War Diary has also been launched. Volunteers will analyse the pages that have been digitised. According to its website,

Data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes:

  • to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries,

  • to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project

  • to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought

Operation War Diary is a joint venture between the National Archive, the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse, a company that has developed systems that enable volunteers to help with scientific and historical research from home.

See the BBC website and the Great War Forum for more details.

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The Silent War Part 1 – BBC

On 5 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the first episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. The BBC website describes the first episode, titled Know Your Enemy, as follows:

For decades, Britain and America’s Cold War submarines waged a secret war of espionage against the Soviet navy. Deep in the ocean, crews were locked in a game of cat and mouse as each side battled to gain the tactical and technological advantage.

After decades of silence, submariners from both the east and west are now allowed to talk more openly than ever before about how they plotted to win the war beneath the waves. The west’s superior technology allowed them to secretly shadow the Soviet fleet, at close quarters, giving them vital intelligence and the upper hand if war broke out.

Shadowing submarines was dangerous. The film explores close encounters between western and Soviet forces that put the lives of submariners at risk. Candid interviews with British, American and Russian submariners reveal the pressures of lengthy underwater patrols that drove them to the edge of their physical and mental limits.

1950s submarines were little advanced from those of WWII. They were still powered by diesel-electric engines on the surface and rechargeable batteries underwater, limiting the time that they could stay submerged and the speed that they could travel at when underwater. Water supplies were restricted, meaning that even junior officers such as Sandy Woodward, later commander of the RN task force that recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982, were unable to wash whilst at sea. Much of their time was spent giving anti-submarine training for their own side.

NATO was heavily outnumbered on the ground, and had little hope of resisting a Soviet land offensive by conventional weapons. Dr Owen Cote of MIT pointed out that this meant that nuclear weapons were to NATO an ‘incredibly attractive’ way of deterring the Soviets and preserving the status quo. In the 1950s these would be delivered by aircraft or land based missiles. However, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, by the USSR in 1957 left the USA vulnerable to nuclear attack, meaning that its land missiles could be destroyed before they could be launched.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower therefore decided that submarine based nuclear ballistic missiles were required, but the necessary technology did not then exist. Nuclear powered submarines were developed, which were armed with Polaris nuclear ballistic missiles capable of destroying a Soviet city from over 2,000 miles away. They were twice as fast underwater as diesel-electric submarines, and could stay submerged indefinitely. They produced their own water, and the only constraint on their time at sea was food supply. One US nuclear submariner told his wife that in wartime he would be safer on his submarine than she was at home.

The USSR needed to develop its own nuclear missile submarines, but struggled to do so. In the interim it tried to establish a land base for nuclear missiles closer to the USA, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet forces sent to Cuba included four Foxtrot class submarines, which were powered by diesel-electric engines, but each armed with a torpedo with a nuclear warheads. They were detected by SOSUS, a system secretly laid by the USA in the Atlantic to detect submarines. The USN harassed them, forcing them to surface. They would have been destroyed had it been a shooting war, and returned home in disgrace.

This experience convinced the Soviets that they needed nuclear powered missile submarines of their own, building 34 of the Project 667A class in five years. Both sides could destroy the enemy’s land based bombers and missiles, but not its nuclear missile submarines. They were the ideal weapon for the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which meant that neither side would attack the other because it would be destroyed in retaliation. In what was an ideological conflict neither planned to attack, but both feared that they would be attacked. Cote argued that nuclear missile submarines actually made the world more secure, because they deterred both sides from attacking.

Britain launched its first ballistic missile submarines in 1966. Its submarine service worked extremely closely with the American one, with submarines from both countries being based on the west coast of Scotland. Submarines from all three navies went on long patrols, trying to remain undetected. Only a very few officers knew exactly where they were. British captains had sealed orders telling them when to fire. Soviet ones did not know which enemy cities their missiles were aimed at.

By 1970 NATO was concerned at the growing size of the Soviet Navy, fearing that there was no reason for the USSR, which had invaded Czechoslovakia two years before, to have such a large fleet unless it intended to use it. A plan to detect and track all Soviet missile submarines so that they could be destroyed before launching their missiles in the event of war was therefore devised.

Soviet missiles had a range of only 1,300 miles, compared with 2,500 for the Polaris ones used by the RN and USN, so Soviet submarines had to cross the Atlantic in order to be in a position to fire on the USA. SOSUS could detect them, and was now so sophisticated that it could identify different types of submarine. However, NATO needed to know the as much as possible about the acoustic signatures of the Soviet submarines.

In order to obtain this information hunter killer submarines were used to closely track Soviet submarines. The hunter killer boats were also nuclear powered, but armed with only torpedoes, so were smaller and stealthier than the missile submarines. The programme implied that they were a new type, but in fact they predated the missile boats. From 1975, however, the RN and USN hunter killers were given a new role, which was to track Soviet missile submarines in the Atlantic.

The Soviet submarines were first detected by SOSUS. An RN or USN hunter killer submarine would then be ordered to get as close to the Soviet boat as possible, exploiting its advantages of being quieter and having twice the detection range. The objective was to gather as much information as possible about the acoustic signature of the Soviet submarine.

This was dangerous work because the two submarines were so close to each other. One British boat was badly damaged in a collision with what its crew were told was an iceberg. Lord Owen, a former government minister, admitted that it was a Soviet submarine, but the Ministry of Defence has never officially confirmed this. Crews from all three navies were banned from talking about their missions at the time.

NATO was also concerned by the Kiev, the USSR’s first aircraft carrier, which was armed with eight cruise missiles with nuclear warheads as well as aircraft, and was faster than any submarine. In 1977 HMS Swiftsure, Britain’s newest submarine, was sent north to the Barents Sea to gather information on her acoustic signature. This was a difficult and dangerous mission as Swiftsure had to go into the Soviet Northern Fleet’s home waters.

Submarines have their interior lit by only dim red lighting when it is dark outside as it is essential that the light at the bottom of the periscope is at least as dark as that at the top, or else it will be impossible to see anything after dark. As there is only an hour’s daylight per day so far north at that time of the year Swiftsure had only red lighting all day for almost two months.

Her task was made even harder because the Soviets were conducting a major naval exercise when she entered the Barents Sea. However, she was able to get close enough to Kiev to take photographs through the periscope, and to obtain full details of her acoustic signature. This would have enabled NATO to detect and sink her before she got close enough to Europe to fire her missiles in wartime.

This fascinating programme concluded by arguing that the RN and USN hunter killer submarines for two decades obtained vital intelligence that gave NATO ‘a priceless strategic advantage.’ The second episode, to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9 pm on Thursday 12 December, covers the Soviet fight back, weapons under the ice and a disaster at sea.

No overseas co-producers were listed, so those outside the UK will have to hope that their local stations buy it.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated at 11:20 pm on BBC2 on 11 December and at 3:15 am on BBC2 on 22 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do so. The second episode is on BBC2 at 9:00 pm on Wednesday 12 December.

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Deserter – Charles Glass – Edinburgh Book Festival

At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.

He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.

His website describes the book as follows:

The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?

The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.

The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.

Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.

John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.

He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.

After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.

He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.

Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.

The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.

The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.

American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.

A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.

A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.

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The Iraq War Part 3 – BBC2

The BBC broadcast the final episode of its three part series on The Iraq War on 12 June. I was away at the time, so have only just watched it. I previously blogged about the first episode, dealing with the build up to the war and the second, which covered its immediate aftermath.

The BBC’s website describes the final episode, titled It’s Hell, Mr President, as follows:

The last episode in this three-part series brings the Iraq story up to date. Tony Blair and Dick Cheney describe how they responded as horrific sectarian violence overtook Iraq. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tells how he and Condoleeza Rice compelled Iraq’s prime minister to resign. Other key insiders reveal how they selected and supported his replacement.

With an exclusive interview with controversial Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the programme tells how the war ended and why Iraq today faces the worst sectarian violence in five years.

There were still 130,000 US troops in Iraq three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush made a speech saying that US strategy was that ‘as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.’ By the summer of 2006 this plan looked hopeless.

Meghan O’Sullivan, Bush’s top adviser on Iraq, was told by an Iraqi friend that the US must stay, or else Iraq would descend into mass killings and violence. Bush called a meeting of his Iraq team, telling them that a new strategy was needed. Their hopes lay with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. However, the Americans would soon wonder whether he was the solution or part of the problem.

The majority of Iraqis are Shias, but the Sunni minority had dominated under Saddam. Al Qaeda set out to provoke Shias into attacking Sunnis. On 22 February 2006 a bomb destroyed the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites.

This led to attacks by Shias on Sunnis. Sunnis claimed that the Shia militias killing Sunnis were using government equipment and operating from government buildings. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaaaferi, the leader of a Shia religious party, was unwilling to take action against Shias, claiming that all the Shias were doing was ‘vent[ing] their feelings.’ Sunnis retaliated, and Jaaferi eventually declared a curfew, which General George Casey, the Coalition military commander in Iraq, had called for at the start of the violence.

The USA and UK decided that Jaaferi, who had been democratically elected, had to go. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad to persuaded him to grudgingly accept that he had to go.

The new PM had to be a Shia, but the US was concerned that many of the candidates might be pro-Iran, where most of them whilst in exile from Saddam’s government. They chose Maliki, a relative unknown who had spent his exile in Syria. Bush’s strategy was simply to back Maliki, who took power on 20 May 2006.

However, many other Shia leaders were more popular than Maliki. The strongest militia was the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who had great support amongst the 3 million Shias living in the slums of the Sadr City district of Baghdad. Its political wing had enough MPs to make or break Maliki’s coalition.

The US attacked the Sadr City militia soon after Maliki took power, but without consulting him. He asked Casey not to launch attacks against certain individuals and al-Sadr’s militia without his permission. He refused to allow an attack despite being shown a video of two innocent people being kidnapped and killed by the militia.

Soon afterwards, al-Qaeda set off a car bomb in Sadr City. A cycle of killing by one side followed by retaliation by the other ensued; 1,855 Baghdad residents had been killed by the end of July. Casey wanted the Iraqi government to restrain the Shia militias. However, Mowaffak Rubaie, Maliki’s National Security Adviser, argued that it was better to let the Shia militias and al-Qaeda fight it out, and then deal with the winner after it had been weakened by the sectarian conflict.

O’Sullivan, who had many contacts in Baghdad, then told Bush that Baghdad was ‘hell.’ Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Adviser, then suggested that the US send more troops, although the US public wanted US troops to be brought home. Bush hesitated because he was uncertain whether or not he could trust Maliki.

According to Hadley the question was whether Maliki was a sectarian or else somebody who wanted to act in the interests of all Iraqis, but lacked the means to do so. Bush flew to Iraq on 30 November 2006 to find out. He offered a ‘troop surge’, but on condition that there was no political interference with targeting of extremists. Maliki accepted this.

20,000 US troops were to be sent, along with a new commander, General David Petraeus. At the same time the 7,000 British troops in Basra were due to leave. Pertraeus flew to London to try and persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep the British troops in Basra. Blair argued that there was less need for troops in Basra, but Petraeus convinced him that British withdrawal would send the wrong message, so the British troops stayed.

Baghdad had been a city of mainly mixed neighbourhoods, but was becoming divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves. Petraeus  sent troops into the warring districts, but also needed a political solution. His British deputy, General Graeme Lamb, was ordered to find some warring leaders who might be prepared to stop fighting. Some US generals were reluctant to talk to those who had been fighting them, but agreed to try this strategy.

A local Sunni leader, Abu Abed, was unhappy at the way in which al Qaeda had imposed strict Islamic law in his neighbourhood. He approached the Americans to tell them that his men intended to attack al Qaeda. They succeeded in forcing al Qaeda to retreat on the first day, but were then forced back by a counter attack and surrounded. At this point the US (Fifth) Cavalry appeared and defeated the al Qaeda forces

Abu Abed and other Sunni leaders agreed to co-operate with the US. Petraeus wanted Maliki to include them in the Iraqi security forces, but Maliki was sceptical, wanting to know who the volunteers were. The Americans had taken DNA tests, finger prints and retina scans from the volunteers so that they would know who they were.

Those volunteers who had been al-Qaeda foot soldiers were able to provide intelligence on the leadership, allowing the US to target it hard core. Sectarian killing began to fall in September 2007, and Maliki agreed that 20% of the Sunni volunteers could join the Iraqi security forces. He also took control of senior appointments in the security forces, and had the special forces report directly to him.

In early 2008 al Sadr’s Mahdi Army took control of Basra after British troops left. On 22 March Maliki told Petraeus that he intended to take personal command of an attack on Basra. Petraeus said that it would take six months to organise the assault, but Maliki said that he would go ahead, and required only air transport from the Americans.

The Mahdi Army beat off the government forces. Petraeus said that there was some doubt as to whether Maliki should receive full US support since he had taken such a rash decision. However, Bush thought that this was the Iraqis stepping up, and ordered Petraeus to support him. The US sent attack helicopters and armed drones to support the Iraqis, who had no air power.

Maliki’s forces, with US air support, took Basra. He gave al-Sadr an ultimatum to either disband the Mahdi Army or else be banned from future elections. Al Sadr agreed to a ceasefire.

Maliki, having defeated both his Shia and the Sunni opponents, now asked Bush to set a date for US departure, which he agreed to do.

However, Maliki’s political opponents claimed that he was using his security services and the police against them in the to intimidate them ahead of the next election. Ayad Allawi, a former Prime Minister, formed al Iraqiya, a coalition of non-sectarian and Sunni parties, to oppose Maliki. In February 2010, weeks ahead of the election, 66 of its candidates were disqualified on the grounds that they had links to Saddam’s regime.

Despite the intimidation al Iraqiya won two seats more than Maliki’s supporters in the March 2010 election. Maliki demanded a recount, but it did not change the result. It was agreed that Maliki would remain Prime Minister, with Al Iraqiya receiving three senior cabinet posts, including Saleh Mutlaq as Deputy Prime Minister

However, Maliki did not implement the power sharing agreement, leading to street protests. 23 protestors were killed and more than 600 Sunnis were arrested, as was the head of the electoral commission. Maliki blamed continuing terrorism on Sunni leaders who, he alleged, wanted to bring back Saddam’s regime.

President Barack Obama’s new US administration backed Maliki, claiming that he headed a democratic Iraq, with its ‘most inclusive government yet.’ Saleh Mutlaq, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, told Obama that he was ‘dreaming.’ He also said that Iraq had a ‘one man, one party show’ and that Maliki was a dictator. Two days after making these comments his house and those of two other Iraqiya ministers were surrounded by troops commanded by Maliki’s son.

One of the three, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, was under suspicion of terrorism. Petraeus, now Director of the CIA, flew to Baghdad. He pointed out that only Sunnis, and not Shias, were being arrested. Hashimi fled the country, and was convicted of orchestrating murder and sentenced to death, five times, in his absence. The bodyguards of al Iraqiya leaders were arrested. Under interrogation they implicated their bosses in terrorism; one of the bodyguards died in custody.

Sunnis returned to the streets to protest. Maliki sent in troops, who fired on the protestors. Sunni extremists attacked police and soldiers. In April 2013, the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s fall, 700 Iraqis died in sectarian violence, the worst month for five years. Maliki banned journalists from 10 TV channels including al Jazeera.

The Iraq War and its aftermath have led to 170,000 deaths. The result seems to be the replacement of a Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, with a Shia one, Nouri Maliki.

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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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