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There’s now speculation that two of the Royal Regiment of Scotland’s five regular battalions may be facing the axe in the next round of defence cuts. The reason given is the RRoS is being targeted is that it’s not filling its recruitment targets.
The plan to cut the number of infantry battalions from 36 to 25 is insanity. If the British Army is having recruitment problems, maybe it should be looking at why that is. Arguing that battalions have to axed because there are not enough men to fill their ranks is a sneaky underhand way to cut the defence budget. Scotland, where there are very few “real jobs” any more, should be a fertile source of quality recruits. The answer is not to cut the number of RRoS battalions or fill its ranks with the very last people who should be trusted with a gun by lowering recruitment standards. The answer is to make the Army a good job again.
I would hate to see a return to something I witnessed as a reporter in England, where little criminals could avoid a fine or jail by joining the local regiment. I lost count of the number of times a defence lawyer at the Magistrates Court would announce that his client would be unable to fulfil his dream of serving in Her Majesty’s Forces if he had a criminal record. The magistrate would then dutifully agree to postpone accepting a plea and announce that if the little darling was indeed in the Army when his case was next called, then the charges against him would be dropped.

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Maybe I’m getting cynical in my old age; but I couldn’t help wondering why the plan to transfer soldiers from Germany to Scotland is back under discussion. What was proposed last year was that the British Army should have five 6,500 member Multi-Role Brigades and one of them should be stationed in Scotland.
One of the Scottish papers is reporting that someone, anonymously, is suggesting that the Scottish brigade should be comprised of Scots, mainly from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and claiming that the British Army is concerned that if a future operation involving it went wrong, then Scotland would pay a heavy price. There is no reason why the brigade should be based around the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Two non-Scottish battalion-strength units, the Rifles and 45 Royal Marines Commando, are based in Scotland at the moment. My point is that infantry battalions stationed in Scotland don’t have to be “Scottish”. In any case, I don’t think there are 6,500 front-line soldiers serving in nominally Scottish units – basically the RRoS, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Scots Guards. The Guards are unlikely to ever be stationed in Scotland. The 1st Royal Tank Regiment also recruits in Scotland but I’m guessing this scare story assumes that the armoured component of the Scots-based brigade will be the Scots Dragoon guards. The Several logistics and support units based in Germany have already been earmarked for the move to Scotland and as far as I know none of them have Scottish associations.
I suspect this story has been planted in the media just to remind Scots that if they vote for Independence in the 2014 Referendum, then the transfer of troops to Scotland by the British Army will not be happening. I think by the time all the unit redeployments resulting from the closure of existing decrepit army barracks and RAF and Royal Naval facilities being taken over by the Army, the move will mean 2,000 more military personnel being stationed in Scotland. The British Army would become one of the biggest employers in Scotland – provided people vote the right way in the Independence Referendum. Who knows how big the Army component of the Scottish Defence Forces would be after Independence would be.

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After I posted last week blog which bemoaned the focus on the officers drawn from Britain's fee-paying schools when it comes to the slaughter of Britain’s “brightest and best” during the First World War , I remembered that I had some battalion casualty lists from both World Wars at home. I suggested that the loss of talent to the nation in the form of sergeants and warrant officers is too often fignored in military histories. The sergeants and warrants at least held their positions on the grounds of some merit, and not because they happened to go to the “right” school.  It is not difficult  to argue that perhaps the loss of the “brightest and best” of  working class males could actually have dealt a heavier blow to Britain than that of the officers. Certainly, many battalions found it harder to replace good non-commissioned officers than they did to replace those granted the King’s Commission. The point of mentioning the casualty figures was that it would seem that a senior N.C.O.’s life expectancy on the frontline wasn’t that much better than an officer’s. A look at the casualty lists shows that in some units the life expectancy was about the same. In others, the officer casualty figure is indeed higher, which at first sight might reinforce the myth that those families who could afford private education did indeed make a greater sacrifice in the "War to End All Wars". But perhaps when the number of officers killed who were actually smart working class boys promoted from the ranks of the N.C.O.s is factored in, the casualty rates balance again. All the deaths in the First World War were tragic losses to society. What irritates me is that when many historians talk about the Loss of a Generation they are only thinking of a generation of former pupils from fee-paying schools.
On another subject, no-one got back to me with any information about that book Tales of the RIC. I just noted that the University of Toronto classes the book as fiction, rather than the memoir of a police officer in Ireland during the IRA campaign of the early 1920s that it purports to be.

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I was reminded recently about the shambles at the NATO press centre in Skopje when the media rushed to get their accreditation of the 1999 “invasion” of Kosovo from neighbouring Macedonia (or as the Greeks insist it must be known The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
The press centre was in a hotel and the conference room, or maybe it was the main dining room, was packed with the “cream” of the war zone reporting set. The public school accents and designer khakis, along with the designer Australian boots, were a dead give-away (OK, slight exaggeration but there were more of those kind of war tourists than I expected). I’d just hitched a ride into Macedonia with the last reinforcement flight for the Canadian contingent and was amongst the last people to arrive at the press centre. The line-up was long, very long, and never seemed to move forward. Eventually, I realised that everyone that arrived after me was going into the queue ahead of me. I seriously doubt that they’d all had to leave the line earlier to make an emergency dash to the toilet.
The queue only started to move when a British sergeant with a thick Brummie accent climbed up on a table and announced that he would break the “f-n legs” of the next person to skip into the line. Two hours of not moving an inch forward suddenly became a 20 minute advance to the accreditation desk. I don’t think the sergeant had anything to gain by putting an end to the nonsense, he was just a decent bloke from the English Midlands.
When people talk about the loss of the cream of Britain’s manhood in the First World War, they are often thinking of the private-school boys who died before they could become leading artists, poets, engineers or lawyers. But the fact is that the British Army had an almost inexhaustible supply of public school boys to make into officers. What the British Army really needed and couldn’t find enough of were experienced Non Commissioned Officers to train and lead the citizen volunteers of 1914-16.  We are frequently reminded of the short life expectancy of an infantry officer on the Western Front. But when did you last read of how long a sergeant could expect to survive?All too often the ordinary bloke is marginalised in popular memory thanks to a vocal and well-connected minority who are allowed to set our historical agenda. It’s not enough to be on the winning side to get to write the history. History is written by the winners amongst the winners.

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Books literally have a limited shelf-life. If a title doesn’t sell quickly, it’s pulled off the shelves and either goes on the bargain table or is pulped. This is particularly true of military books. Titles and subject matter seem to go in a cycle. Someone writes a book, say about Arnhem or the Crimean War. It hits the book stores. Even if it sells reasonably well, it is unlikely to be reprinted. At best, it’s on the shelves for a year, maybe 18 months. Then it disappears. So, then there are no books about Arnhem or a Crimea available. Or, maybe there’s one classic account that has been reprinted to be found on the shelves of the better bookshops. But if that piques a reader’s interest, there’s nothing else. Publishers know this. And so new titles tackling tired old battles and campaigns are issued every four or five years. The only thing that is new about them is the title. The rest is a rehash of what’s already known.  Previous analysis is often recycled and passed off as a fresh look – the truth “finally revealed”. It’s not clear whether the authors actually believe this claim because their research has been so sloppy. Most of these books are about as satisfying as yesterday’s boiled potatoes and other left-overs reheated in the microwave for today’s lunch.

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I remember several years ago when an Irish journalist was killed by gangsters the murder triggered a flood of editorials and columns which almost celebrated how dangerous journalism is and how important journalists are to society. I found it nauseating to see glorified gardening correspondents seeking to boost their own egos by invoking the Irish woman’s death. Journalists have a bad habit of making a big deal when a reporter is killed, at least when a white reporter is involved. When a Canadian journalist was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan, the media here went crazy. But who remembers the names of the soldiers killed in the same explosion?
I would have expected the recent spate of stories following the death of Sunday Times Marie Colvin in Syria to be equally irritating. But, through my own work in war zones, I know several of the people who paid tribute to her. They were no superannuated gardening columnists seeking to attach themselves, through vicarious association as fellow journalists, with the dead woman. They are the real deal and Colvin was obviously the real deal too. She knew exactly what she was doing and what the risks were. She was no naïve girly who thought she wouldn’t be killed or kidnapped because she was doing a touchy-feely story about medical clinics for refugees. Nor was she so naïve as to not take death threats seriously. She died because she was prepared to put herself in harm’s way in order to bear witness to atrocity. Her luck ran out; it could happen to anyone. In truth, she was part of an all too rare breed – in which I would not include myself, despite reporting from Kosovo and Afghanistan. So-called “conflict zone reporting”, is a branch of the journalism that is over-populated with frauds, poseurs, the mentally unbalanced and war tourists. Colvin was not one them.

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I've added a map featuring the "traditional" recruiting areas of the old Scottish regiments to "A Quick Guide to the Scottish Regiments". The move towards fixed recruiting areas for each regiment was well in train by the 1870s and the boundaries pretty much set by the 1881 Cardwell Reforms. But even then, those boundaries were not set in stone. The Royal Scots Fusiliers had to turn the Galloway area over the King's Own Scottish Borderers in around 1900. The map reflects the recruiting areas around the time of the First World War.
I'm no artist and the map's not the greatest. If anyone spots a major error, let me know and I'll alter the map.
Space restrictions mean the map shows Glasgow as solely Highland Light Infantry territory. The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) also recruited heavily in Glasgow. Once again, space restrictions mean the Cameronians' recruiting area is labeled "Scot. Rifles". During the First World War only the 1st Battalion of the regiment went by Cameronians, all the other battalions called themselves the Scottish Rifles. In the Second World War all the battalions called themselves Cameronians.
Glasgow provided recruits to all the Scottish regiments. Lacking any cities or major population centres, the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders and the Seaforth Highlanders both had a hard time filling their wartime ranks from their recruiting areas. An old Cameron, captured with much of the old 51st Highland Division at St. Valery in 1940, used to joke "Moskovitz, Schellenberg, O'Hara, Snodgrass, Goldberg, - A Company Cameron Highlanders reporting for duty, Sir."
The Scots Guards and the Scots Greys both recruited from throughout Scotland. Anyway, I hope some you find the map helpful.

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This is another story that I can’t vouch for as being true (See Riot Squad below) – but I thought I’d share it anyway. About 35 years ago the British were introducing a new fighter. The fighter was supposed to have an all-singing all-dancing radar system. But the electronics guys couldn’t iron out of the bugs before the first planes came off the production line and were ready to go into service. So, to keep the planes properly balanced in flight, the weight of the yet-to-be delivered radar system in the nose cone had to be simulated. It turned out that a small bag of cement was just the right weight. People started referring to the radar project as “Blue Circle”. Then things got scary. British intelligence found out that their Soviet counterparts were looking for information about “Project Blue Circle”. The security implications of this agent query were obvious and there was witch-hunt centred on finding out how the Soviets had heard about Blue Circle.
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I was chatting with an Edmonton man who runs a small military museum above his gun shop in the city. He also sells some army surplus stuff but may be scaling back that side of his operation.  One reason for this is that surplus military clothing doesn’t fit as much of the population as it used to. Clothing made in the 1950s and 60s, and to a lesser extent the 70s and 80s, is too small for the modern male. It’s not just that we’re getting taller, we’re getting a lot broader too. I’ve often wondered if the Scots are one of the few people who shrank as the centuries passed. More than half of the Gordon Highlanders in 1850 were at least 5’8” tall but forty years later less than a quarter were that tall. The period marked an acceleration in the movement of Scots from the countryside into the industrial slums of the Central Belt. The British Army was one few organisations that recorded the physical details of working class males in those days and I wonder if the decline in height seen in the Gordons’ recruits was reflected in the general population.
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The men of the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment are apparently being trained in riot control. This, I understand, is in anticipation another summer of riots in the United Kingdom. And yes, I know last summer’s riots were all in England. Many will remember when British units posted to Northern Ireland they were trained to fulfill their duties in “support of the civil power”. And of course before police forces were introduced, riot control was one of the British Army’s main functions. Before and during the First World War it was not unheard of for armed battalions to march through areas hit by strikes if trouble was expected.
My point is, the British Army has a long record of appearances on the streets of Britain. I remember sharing a flat with a fellah from Yorkshire. His father and brothers were all miners. A friend of one of his brothers was on the picket line in Yorkshire during the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85. There was a heavy police presence at the pit. But it could be that there was an army presence too. My Yorkshire pal says his brother’s friend had a brother in the Army. The Army brother was supposed to be in Northern Ireland. But he was seen clad in police riot gear facing off against the pickets, or so my Yorkshire pal’s story goes. So, the Army’s experience in dealing with riot and dissent may be even greater than has been admitted.

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There was saying when I was a reporter that “names make news”. Sometimes, it’s not what’s happening but who it’s happening to that gets the readers’ attention. So, if one the Scottish infantry battalions is facing disbandment, the story gets more attention if it’s said that it's the Black Watch that’s threatened with the axe. So, I don’t know how seriously to take newspaper reports that the Black Watch will be on the chopping block come the next round of defence budget cuts. The same report also mentions the Parachute Regiment could get the chop.
I don’t know by what criteria the Black Watch has been singled out, if indeed it has been. Maybe it has the largest recruiting short-fall of the five battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRoS). In the old days, the very old days, it used to be the most recently raised regiment which was disbanded as the army contracted in times of peace – that would put the 5th Battalion RRoS, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders top of the list. But at least the Argylls have kept their pre-First World War identity. With the exception of the Black Watch, all the other battalions of the regiment were created by a series of amalgamations which began  in 1959.
I’m also a little baffled as to why the Parachute Regiment would be threatened, if it is. It’s been suggested that as they haven’t parachuted into action since Suez in 1956 that they’ve outlived their usefulness. What nonsense. The regiment has had its problems in the past but there’s no denying they are very committed soldiers and part of that comes from parachute training. It makes as much sense to suggest that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers should be disbanded because they don’t carry fusil muskets any more.
Civil servants have never understood the British Army. Once a regiment is disbanded, it’s gone for ever. It’s like social workers putting all the kids in a family in different care homes and then reuniting them seven years later and expecting “happy ever-after”. The problem is that many of the British generals today  see themselves more as civil servants than soldiers. This is not a time to do anything rash. Before the Second World War, the infantry battalions were reduced to a couple of hundred men each, who used football rattles during training to simulate machineguns. There was just enough time to bring them back up to strength and equip them before Hitler invaded Poland. How Hitler would have loved the present day Ministry of Defence.

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Regular visitors to this site will know that I try to post a book review a week. I always give my true opinion of the book, without fear or favour. If you’re wondering what I mean by that and why its worthy of remark, have a look in the Blog Archive for 29th December 2010 "Book Reviewing 101".
But what about the reviews I don’t post? I have two very very critical reviews of books by Canadian authors which I never quite seem to get around to posting. I don’t get paid for the reviews and have to buy the books myself. My point is that I’m not committed or obliged to post a review of any given book.  I have little to gain through this service and perhaps much to lose. People can be very petty. I’ve been critical of Canadian writers in reviews that I’ve posted in the past but the two books I'm sitting on the reviews of are truly dreadful. There’s a good chance that the two authors involved, or  close friends of theirs, will be asked to review my work. I suspect that ripping them a new arsehole for their sloppiness could cost me dear. So, sorry, for the time being I’m taking the coward's way out. I just thought you should know; in the interests of full disclosure and all that good stuff.

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I was just watching Kelly’s Heroes and was struck by Clint Eastwood’s careful crafted coiffure. It struck me that in a lot of war films, the uniforms are pretty accurate but the hair cuts are all wrong. Mind you, in Kelly’s Heroes the uniforms aren’t as scruffy as real-life US soldiers fighting in Germany were. Now, I don’t know if the hair cut thing is down to a lack of interest in realism or actorly vanity. A brutal hair cut of the type inflicted on soldiers in the Second World War would not have looked good on Clint. More attention seems to be paid to hair cuts in more modern movies but they’ve pretty much stopped making Second World films, at least ones that don’t involve killing-Hitler fantasies. So, here’s a plea to anyone planning to make a “historic” war film; get the hair cuts right, doing that adds a lot to the feeling of time and place.
On the subject of war movies, I recently saw a really good one. It was an American one called Battleground and was about a platoon from the 101st Airborne during the Battle of Bulge. It was made in 1947, when a chunk of the audience would have been battle veterans and would have laughed much of the nonsense which followed in later years off of the screen. One of the sergeants even goes through the fighting wearing a greatcoat held closed with a giant safety pin.  The film was nowhere near as gung-ho as I’d expected. In fact there was a lot of shirking and ambiguity in there.

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While researching the Scottish Military Disasters chapter on the exploits of 11 (Scottish) Commando at the Litani River in 1941 I was lucky enough to stumble across a website run by the son of one of the Scots who fought there. I say “lucky” because it prevented me repeating an error which appeared in nearly every book I consulted. The website identified the Regimental Sergeant Major who took command of one of the parties after all the officers were killed or wounded as Lewis Tevendale. And yet book after book gave his name as, I think, Campbell. The website acted as a red flag and after a lot of further research I confirmed the name Tevendale. Journalists here in Canada are supposed to get a second source for key information.  But because two people say the same thing doesn’t make it true – not if it turns out that their information is based on a single source further down the chain. My research on Tevendale eventually led me to the book that originally named him as Campbell. That mistake was then repeated again and again in books that followed. I was very lucky not to be the latest in a long line of writers giving out wrong information. The book involved was at one time THE book on British commando operations during the Second World War and was by a very highly respected author. Three cheers for websites run by the sons of guys who were there!

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I’d be the first to admit I’m not a maths person. But I’ve often wondered if anyone has ever come up with a mathematical formula to calculate how much mayhem is created by various numbers of anti-social thugs. Based on my own experience at high school, it became clear that two nasty bits of work didn’t cause twice as much mayhem as one. I’d guess they made four or five times more trouble. And when they were joined by a third, we weren’t talking about three times as much violence and terror but something like 15 to 20 times as much. By the time the gang reached 20 members, they had the capability of placing hundreds in a state of fear. As the cops found, no-one, but no-one, would testify in court against these thugs. It was only when they were suspected of killing a cop that the hammer finally came down on them. I’d left town by then, but I’ve got a feeling that the methods used to collect evidence and the pressure on potential witnesses to testify were somewhat different than in previous investigations. 

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Does anyone out there know anything about a strange little book called Tales of the RIC? It dates from the early 1920s and purports to be the memoirs of the Royal Irish Constabulary member based at a station in an area in which the Irish Republican Army was active. I say "purports" because I suspect it was one of the last kicks of can by the Black Propaganda department set up during the First World War by the British Government. It's mission was to circulate stories to the "neutral" media, in particular in the pre-1917 United States. The book has my spidey sense tingling because it's just too slickly written. And too much happens in just one station's area. It's almost as if someone has collected up all the IRA atrocity stories in circulation at the time and attributed them to one Irish county. I have little doubt that some of the stories are true. The British attempt to smother the Irish independence movement after the First World War involved a lot of brutality and viciousness from both sides. I've tried to find out more about this book, published by Blackwood, and its author. And all I've drawn is blanks. I'd love to hear from anyone who can fill in those blanks.

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The fate of the Colours of the old King’s Own Scottish Borderers is the subject of debate and the future of the regimental museum in Berwick has been thrown into mix. The KOSB colours were retired earlier this year when the Queen presented the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which was created in 2006 by merging the KOSB with the Royal Scots, with its own colours. The KOSB was raised in Edinburgh in 1689 and some argue the old colours should be preserved there. But the old regimental depot and museum is in Berwick and there are growing calls for the colours to be laid up at the historic Berwick Barracks. The problem may be that it’s feared English Heritage, who own the old barracks complex, want to turn it into luxury flats. The museum’s opening hours have already been cut in what many supporters regard as an attempt to cut visitor numbers down so much that its closure will be justified. It’s a good little museum and it would be a tragedy if is shut down.An online appeal has been launched to bring the Colours to Berwick -Berwick4borderers

The site also includes details of plans to save the museum and use the barracks complex to help injured ex-service personnel and their families.

 

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I watched a documentary recently about the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme, possibly the most successful British movies of all time; 20 million tickets were sold for it in Britain alone. The documentary featured attempts to work out which bits of the film were real and which bits were recreations. It was a silent movie but men could be seen talking. A lip reader was brought in and revealed what the men had said. Fascinating. But the scary bit came when experts in facial recognition were brought in to help identify some of the soldiers who appeared in the film. Stills from the movie were compared with photographs of people reputed to have been in it. On at least two occasions, the experts announced they had a close match, only for military records to reveal the man in the photograph could not be in the man in the film. What scared me was that these experts regularly gave evidence in court linking bad guys captured on security tapes to the accused. The experts were the first to admit that the identifications of the men in the movie were not definite, they would only go as far as to say it was worth looking at their military records. But they gave every appearance of knowing what they were talking about and if I were on a jury I would have taken their evidence far more seriously than I obviously should of. Sadly, I suspect few of the criminals  fingered in court by "expert witnesses" of this kind had military records to back up their alibis.

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I’ve often wondered about the “Leave No Man Behind” policy of western armies fighting in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed to me crazy to risk more lives to recover a dead body. Surely, it would be better to leave one dead body behind than lose five more men in a counter-attack to recover it. Of course, you can’t know for sure that someone’s dead until you take their pulse. And I’d like to think that if it was me lying there that someone would make to effort to rescue me. In the old days, rescuing the wounded used to voluntary. But now soldiers are ordered to go back in.
Then, I got it. Commendable though rescuing the wounded is, it’s not the point. What NATO commanders want to avoid is the bodies of their soldiers being used as propaganda. The last thing they can afford is a video on Al Jazeera of a British, Canadian, or American head being paraded through a village stuck on top of a pole. Hearts and Minds is a policy that applies as much to the Home Front as it does to the frontlines of an insurgent war.

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When I was a newspaper reporter, I wanted answers. It was a matter of professional pride to get them. But I met my match in the mid-1980s in the shape of the then Liberal Party leader David Steel. There was some controversy within the party over the policy on nuclear weapons. Someone slipped me Steel’s cellphone number and I gave him a call. I grilled him for 10 to 15 minutes to find out what the party policy was. He was a busy man and that was all the time I had. I thought I’d pinned him down to a firm statement of policy. I was satisfied. Then I looked carefully at my notes. It became apparent that he’d chosen his words very carefully. I had heard what I wanted to hear. He hadn’t actually said what I thought he was saying. He had said precisely nothing. I was torn between admiration and frustration. I’d been bested by an old pro. I tried the cellphone number again. But this time there was no answer.

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