HIGHLAND INDEPENDENT COMPANIES

Painting by David Morier of the Battle of Culloden first published just six months after the battle in October 1746, showing in the foreground British red coat soldiers wearing kilts who were probably the Independent Highland Companies that were kept in reserve at the battle, as described by Peter Simpson. William Sutherland, 17th Earl of Sutherland who raised two Independent Highland Companies for the Government was present at the battle.

Formation of the 43rd (Black Watch) regiment

In 1738 Wade reviewed the six Independent Highland Companies who by this time were known officially as Am Freiceadan Dubh or Black Watch. It has been suggested that this name came from their sombre dress which distinguished them from Lowland and English soldiers who were known as Seidaran Dearag (Red Soldiers). In 1739 a further four companies were added and the ten companies together were embodied to form the 43rd Highlanders Regiment (a regiment of the line).

One of the biggest problems faced by the Jacobites was the degree of opposition which they faced in the Highlands. Several incomplete companies of the Earl of Loudoun’s 64th Highlanders were scattered in various posts and provided a nucleus for the formation of a Loyalist army. At the end of October 1745, Major General John Campbell of Mamore was commissioned to raise ‘eight Independent Companies each of 100 men with the proper officers; and likewise to arm 16 such companies more, without the charge of commissioned officers, who are to serve without pay and are to be raised from the Duke of Argyll’s and the Earl of Breadalbane’s Contrys’.These companies became known as the Argyle Militia and the eight regular companies together with a company from the Black Watch and two from Loudoun’s 64th served at Falkirk and afterwards at Culloden. In addition a further eighteen Highland Independent Companies were raised in the north of Scotland by the Earl of Loudoun. It is worth noting that the companies were primarily employed in a counter-insurgency role and much of the harrying of the glens which followed Culloden was actually carried out by these Highlanders.

Independent Highland Companies

 

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The Siege of York

On 19 January 1644 the Scots army crossed the River Tweed into Northumberland. It comprised twenty-one regiments of foot and seven regiments of horse, some 18,000 men. Sir Thomas Glemham had only 2,000 men with which to oppose them and all he could do was retreat before the Scots, breaking bridges as he went. By the 25th the Scots had reached Alnwick and arrived at Morpeth two days later. On 1 February the Scots began their final march to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, although due to the weather they did not arrive before the town until the 3rd. The town was immediately summoned to surrender and the Scots’ surprise must have been great when they received a refusal from the Marquess of Newcastle himself – he had been promoted in the peerage for his victory at Adwalton Moor as had his lieutenant general, James King, as Lord Eythin.

On 15 January Newcastle had returned to York. For the next two weeks he gathered his forces to move north against the Scots and put plans for the defence of Yorkshire into place. On the 29th he set off north with 5,000 foot and 3,000 horse. Newcastle’s army arrived at Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 3 February, a few hours before the Scots army approached from the north, having taken only five days to complete the march.

With their summons refused the Scots were in a poor situation. They had intended to seize Newcastle-upon-Tyne and use it as a supply base. At this early part of the year the roads back to Scotland were in very poor condition and could not be used to supply such a large army. The obvious solution was to supply the army by sea but this needed a decent sized port. The coast of Northumberland was sadly deficient in such ports. The Marquess of Newcastle was aware of the precarious Scots position and his main objective became the defence of the line of the River Tyne. The Scots army sidestepped towards the west in an attempt to find an undefended crossing, as well as covering Newcastle-upon-Tyne. As the Scots army spread out, Newcastle was presented with an ideal opportunity to strike at them. On 19 February two Royalist columns crossed the Tyne and attacked the Scots’ quarters at Corbridge. In a hard-fought action the Scots were driven back with loss and their commander, Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven, concentrated the whole army close to Newcastle to prevent a repetition.

Although Newcastle had successfully held the Tyne his army was exhausted and in need of rest. With this in mind, Newcastle withdrew his army to Durham. This presented Leven with an ideal opportunity, which the canny old soldier did not let pass. On 28 February the Scots crossed the Tyne and marched for Sunderland which was occupied on 4 March. The Scots now had their supply base and spent the next four weeks gathering supplies in preparation for their next move. On several occasions Newcastle tried to draw the Scots out of Sunderland to fight him in open ground. Leven realised that although his army outnumbered Newcastle’s, the veteran Royalist horse could be decisive. Leven refused to be drawn and several inconclusive actions were fought among the enclosures surrounding Sunderland. By the 25th Newcastle had realised that the Scots would not be drawn out on to ground of his choosing and pulled his troops back into Durham. On the 31st the Scots marched in pursuit of Newcastle and by 8 April had occupied Quarrington Hill, to the east of the town, effectively cutting Newcastle off from Hartlepool, his main supply port.

Things began to move rapidly. On the 12 April Newcastle received news that his Yorkshire army had been defeated at Selby and York was in danger of falling. During the early hours of the 13th Newcastle’s army set off for York, with the Scots in close pursuit. The Royalists arrived at York on the 19th, in the nick of time. The Scots and Lord Fairfax’s armies joined at Tadcaster on the 20th. In a matter of days the whole situation in Yorkshire had changed.

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The Allies moved into their assigned zones, with the Scots covering the south and west sides of the town. Lord Fairfax was still short of infantry and several regiments of Scots foot, under Sir James Lumsden, were despatched to reinforce him on the eastern side of York. Although the Allied force heavily outnumbered the Royalist defenders, they were still too few to cover the whole circuit of the town’s defences. The area to the north of the town, between the Ouse and the Fosse, was covered only by cavalry patrols. Until this gap was sealed the Royalists would be able to bring supplies and reinforcements into the town, thus making the Allied task much more difficult.

It was obvious that the Allies needed more troops but where were they to come from? As it happened another force was within easy reach of York. In East Anglia the Earl of Manchester’s Army of the Eastern Association had captured Lincoln on 5 May, finally clearing the Royalists from his assigned area of responsibility. A deputation, including the Scots Earl of Crawford-Lindsey and Sir Thomas Fairfax, was despatched to talk to Manchester, who readily agreed to bring his troops to York. Manchester’s army began its march on the 24th and moved into position to the north of York on 3 June. The city was now fully surrounded and the siege began.

West of the Pennines, Prince Rupert was beginning his move to relieve York. To try to prevent this Sir John Meldrum had been sent to Manchester with two regiments of foot, including one Scots regiment. The bulk of the Allied horse had been sent to cover the passes through the Pennines – Cromwell is mentioned as visiting Penistone to cover the Woodhead Pass and Otley to defend the road from Skipton.

On 5 June Lord Fairfax put a plan into action to raise a battery against Walmgate Bar. To mask this move the Scots and Eastern Association troops formed up as though they were going to attack. While the defenders’ attention was drawn to the other side of the town, Fairfax made his move, capturing the suburbs outside the gate and raising a five-gun battery within 200 yards of the gate. Newcastle had made a mistake by not destroying the suburbs outside the town as these covered the enemy advances against the town’s weak points: its gates. It also gave the Allies defensible positions should the Royalists sally out of the town. Realising his mistake, Newcastle tried to rectify the situation on 8 June by burning down the buildings outside Bootham Bar. The attempt was unsuccessful and the fire raisers captured. In return, Manchester’s men tried to set fire to Bootham Bar’s wooden gates but this attempt was also unsuccessful.

Newcastle had received news of Prince Rupert’s advance into Lancashire. It is thought that this communication was carried out by signal fires from Pontefract Castle. At this stage of the war Prince Rupert had a reputation for invincibility and his northward march had put fear into the hearts of the Committee of Both Kingdoms. Several letters from the Committee to the commanders at York prompted them to divide their armies and send a substantial force over the Pennines. Leven, Fairfax and Manchester stuck to their task, telling the Committee that a division of their force would lead to disaster.

On 8 June Newcastle decided to open communications with the Allied commanders, more in an effort to waste time rather than a desire to come to an agreement. For one week the two sides exchanged messages and held discussions until, on the 15th, Newcastle peremptorily refused to accept the Allies’ surrender terms. It now became obvious that the previous week’s parleys had been a time wasting measure and Newcastle had no intention of surrendering the town. On the 16th the first attempt to storm the town took place.

Sir Henry Vane, a representative of the Committee of Both Kingdoms with the army at York, was sitting in his room writing a letter to the Committee, reporting the completion of two mines and the repair of a massive siege gun. Mines were a method of breeching defensive walls that had been used from ancient times. A tunnel was dug until it reached the walls and then a chamber was dug. Originally, a fire had been set in the chamber which burnt through the tunnel’s supports, causing the ground above to collapse, bringing the walls down with it. By the time of the Civil War the chamber was filled with gunpowder which was then exploded, blowing the wall above, and any defenders standing on it, into the air. Sir Henry was disturbed part way through writing his letter by a loud explosion. When he returned to his correspondence he added some important news:

Since my writing thus much Manchester played his mine with very good success, made a fair breach, and entered with his men and possessed the manor house [King’s Manor], but Leven and Fairfax not being acquainted therewith, that they might have diverted the enemy at other places, the enemy drew all their strength against our men, and beat them off again, but with no great loss, as I hear.

A mine had been exploded under St Mary’s Tower. Much of the tower and its adjacent walls had collapsed – the damage can still be seen today.

With the wall breached, Lawrence Crawford, Manchester’s Sergeant-Major-General of foot and a professional Scots soldier, ordered his assault force to attack. The attack by Manchester’s men seems to have caught the other commanders by surprise and the Royalists were able to concentrate on repulsing the attack. Newcastle took part in the defence, leading a party from his own regiment. The Parliamentarian force was repulsed with considerable loss – Manchester mentions, in a letter to the Committee of Both Kingdoms, losing 300 men in the assault, including 200 prisoners.

It is difficult to understand why Manchester carried out this attack without support from the other Allied commanders. Sir Thomas Fairfax gives one possible reason:

Till, in Lord Manchester’s quarters, approaches were made to St Mary’s Tower; and soon came to mine it; which Colonel Crawford, a Scotchman, who commanded that quarter, (being ambitious to have the honour, alone, of springing the mine) undertook, without acquainting the other Generals with it, for their advice and concurrence, which proved very prejudicial.

Another interesting point is the location of the attack. St Mary’s Tower forms one corner of the defences of the King’s Manor, which is outside York’s main defensive walls. Even if Manchester’s men had captured the Manor they would still not have breached the main defences, although their approach to Bootham Bar would have become much easier – any approach could be flanked by musket fire from the manor. What had happened to the second mine? Lord Fairfax had attempted to mine Walmgate Bar and Sir Henry Vane had reported its completion. Why had this mine not been exploded? Sir Henry Slingsby, one of the Royalist defenders, gives the reason: the mine had flooded. Simeon Ashe, the Earl of Manchester’s chaplain, gives this as the reason for Crawford blowing the mine when he did, rather than his ambition, as Sir Thomas Fairfax asserts.

The attack on the King’s Manor was the only attempt by the Allied commanders to assault the town. For two weeks after the failed assault things quietened. Both sides were holding their breath and waiting for Prince Rupert’s next move. On 30 June news reached the Allied commanders that the Prince had arrived at Knaresborough, within a day’s march of the town. They had no choice but to leave their siege lines and gather the army to oppose the Prince’s advance. Early on 1 July the Allies marched west from York and formed line of battle on Hessay Moor. This position blocked the Prince’s direct route from Knaresborough, via Wetherby.

It is now time to go back several weeks and briefly look at Prince Rupert’s advance into Lancashire and his approach march to York. On 16 May Rupert began his march to the north. His first move would be into Lancashire which, early in the war, had been a fertile recruiting ground for the Royalist cause. After the Battle of Sabden Brook, in May 1643, the county had come under Parliamentarian control, although many of its inhabitants still had Royalist leanings. Only one position still held out for the King, Lathom House, and one of Rupert’s objectives was to relieve it.

By 23 May Rupert’s growing force had reached Knutsford. He had been joined on the march by Sir John Byron’s Cheshire forces. The Royalists were confronted by the River Mersey which had only three crossing points between Manchester and the sea: Hale Ford, Warrington and Stockport. Hale Ford was covered by the defences of Liverpool and Warrington had been garrisoned. This left Stockport as Rupert’s choice of crossing point and he successfully brushed aside the locally raised garrison and continued into Lancashire on the 25th.

The immediate effect of Rupert’s entry into Lancashire was the raising of the siege of Lathom House. The besiegers withdrew into Bolton and this was Rupert’s next target. On 28 May Rupert’s army stormed the town in, if Parliamentarian news sheets are to be believed, one of the bloodiest episodes in the Civil War. That said, there is little evidence beyond Parliamentary propaganda to support the wholesale slaughter reported.

On the 30th the Royalists moved on to Bury, where they were joined by Newcastle’s cavalry, the Northern Horse, commanded once again by George Goring after his exchange, and several other small forces from Derbyshire. With the arrival of these reinforcements Rupert’s force had grown to 7,000 horse and 7,000 foot.

Rupert’s next target was Liverpool which would provide the Royalists with a good arrival port for Irish reinforcements. Leaving Bury on 4 June, the Royalists arrived before Liverpool on the 7th, having marched via Bolton and Wigan. Rupert summoned the town to surrender but its commander, Colonel Moore, refused. Between the 7th and 9th the town was bombarded and by the morning of the 10th a large enough breach had been made in the town’s defences to allow an assault. Although the attack was repulsed, Colonel Moore realised that his men could not hold out for much longer. During the night the defenders were evacuated onto the ships in the harbour and the Royalists occupied the town on the 11th.

While he was at Liverpool Rupert received a letter from his uncle, the King. This letter is one of the most controversial documents to have come out of the Civil War and historians are still disputing its correct interpretation. Rupert believed it was a direct order to fight the Allied forces besieging York and, after his defeat at Marston Moor, carried it with him for the rest of his life as proof of why he fought the battle.

On 20 June the Royalist army left Liverpool and began its approach march to York. By the 23rd they had reached Preston and then crossed the Pennines to Skipton by the 26th. After resting for several days the Royalists continued their march, arriving at Knaresborough on the 30th. On 1 July Rupert caught the waiting Allied commanders by surprise by not taking the direct line from Knaresborough to York but taking the longer route along the north bank of the River Ouse. By nightfall the Prince’s army was encamped in the Forest of Galtres, north-west of the city, and York had been relieved.

Operation Bolton

A Tornado GR1 equipped with a TIALD pod extends its airbrakes during an Operation Bolton sortie.

Since the end of the Gulf War the UN had been monitoring Iraq’s compliance with UN directives on biological and chemical warfare. The work of a team of inspectors established by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) had largely been unnoticed by the media, but they were thrown into the limelight during late 1997 when the Iraqis stopped co-operating with UNSCOM. As part of the diplomatic response to Iraq, the UK initiated Operation Bolton in October to reinforce British presence in the region. The Saudis were unwilling to allow offensive operations to be carried out from their territory, so initially Operation Bolton comprised the deployment of HMS Invincible, augmented by the Harrier GR.7s of 1 Squadron, to the Persian Gulf. They arrived in theatre in late January. However, in the meantime the Kuwaitis had expressed a willingness to host combat aircraft and on Friday 6 February, just three months after completing their previous operational tour, 14 Squadron at Brüggen was given 48hrs notice to return to the Middle East. Crews were immediately recalled from leave and detachments. ‘I was skiing in Val d’Isere,’ recalls Flt Lt S.E. Reeves, ‘when I got a call saying “come on back” so I had to hire a car and drive back to Brüggen.’ The squadron also had crews taking part in the night Tactical Leadership Training (TLT) exercise at Leuchars: ‘the TLT staff came and instructed the two 14 Squadron crews to return to Brüggen immediately’ recalled Flt Lt K.R. Rumens. ‘At the time we had absolutely no idea why. The next day back at Brüggen the Boss briefed all of the 14 Squadron aircrew and engineers and informed us that first thing Monday morning we would be taking nine Tornado GR1s out to a base in Kuwait. We were to get ready for war immediately.’

An advance party of engineers was despatched to get the airfield ready for operations. As he disembarked from the aircraft, Ch Tech Spanswick was reminded of the disparaging comments he had made a few months beforehand when he had first seen Al Kharj. ‘We arrived at Ali Al Salem at about 04:00hrs with thunderstorms all round, and in the darkness we could just make out collapsed tents and rivers of mud and waterlogged sand everywhere. I said “Finchy, do you remember what I said when we arrived in Al Kharj… well it just has got worse” In my opinion Ali Al Salem was a unique deployment: to my knowledge it was the first time an RAF Tornado squadron had deployed, completely on its own (with no support from any other squadron and certainly no help form the Americans) to a bare-based operating location, especially being so close to the Iraqi border. It was quite scary, as we had no idea what was going to happen, no idea how long it was going to last, nor when we would get home. All we knew was that we had twenty-four hours to get the place up and running to accept thirteen Tornados being deployed from UK and Brüggen. A couple of years earlier I had driven past Ali Al Salem when going to a Kuwait bombing range and saw the devastation of the base with bombed out HASs and building et cetera. However, it was all extremely exciting in a very nervous way and we pulled together as a complete squadron. Twenty-four hours later, the runway was clear and we had sorted out the aprons in front of the HASs to accept the aircraft. It was quite an awesome sight to see thirteen Tornados taxi in, in pitch-black conditions at a bombed out airfield in the middle of the Kuwait desert. And on top of that it was only a few hours later the jets were ready for their first mission over Iraq. And so on a diet of boiled rice and boiled chicken our adventures began… again.’

Back at Brüggen the whole station worked over the weekend to get the aircraft ready and on 9 February 1998, nine Tornados left Brüggen heading for Kuwait. A further four aircraft deployed directly from the UK. Ali Al Salem Air Base, which lay some twenty-five miles to the west of Kuwait City, had been re-occupied by the Kuwaiti Air Force (KAF) after the Gulf War, but details about the airfield were scant. ‘As squadron QFI,’ continued Flt Lt Rumens, ‘I was tasked with briefing the squadron with what facilities the airfield had. The brief was pretty lean. We had no charts/plates, no information on radar services or approach aids. I had worked out from satellite imagery the approximate runway direction and length and it looked like concrete. In fact the only thing we knew was phoned through to us from Tom Boyle, our former Boss, who was already in theatre. Tom informed us that Kuwait City International Airport would see us into the area on their radar and then chop us to Ali Al Salem Tower for which a frequency was provided.’ After a 7½hr flight, the Tornados reached Kuwait in darkness. The runway lighting showed up well, but on taxying off the runway Flt Lt Rumens discovered that ‘there were no lights anywhere else on the airfield so we were waved off of the runway by a few engineers who had torches and we shut down and chocked nine Tornados in a tight “gaggle” on a bit of concrete just off the end of the runway. The next day in the light the engineers had to tow aircraft to the parking places.’ The airfield was still in the semi-destroyed state in which it had been left after the Gulf War.

Over the next two days, the squadron established a dispersed operating base in one of the HAS sites. Each of the large HAS had an enormous hole in the roof, thanks to the attention of Coalition aircraft during the Gulf War. Despite the holes, the shelters provided ideal storage space for engineering equipment. In one HAS the operations and engineering facilities were set up inside long tents, each of which was protected with sandbags. Initially the aircraft were parked in the open outside the shelters but later on, as the temperatures rose, light-weight canopies were constructed to protect airframes, engineers and aircrew from the sun. Weapons were delivered to Ali Al Salem and the TIALD pods being used by 17 Squadron for Operation Jural were flown in from Al Kharj. Forty-eight hours after arriving in Kuwait, 14 Squadron declared itself ready for operations.

In the end, the Tornados were not required for attack operations. Diplomatic initiatives had quickly defused the crisis and a new agreement between Iraq and UNSCOM was signed on 17 February. However the squadron remained in Ali Al Salem for the next three months to fly Jural-type sorties in the southern NFZ. Within each pair of aircraft, the leader would be TIALD-equipped and also be loaded with two Paveway II LGBs; his wingmen would carry the Vicon pod. Flying continued around the clock and most crews flew a mixture of day and night missions. When compared to Dhahran or Al Kharj, Ali Al Salem was much close to Iraq, resulting in much reduced transit times to Iraqi airspace: sortie times were therefore shorter than on previous detachments, typically being around 2hr. As previously, Coalition aircraft took the opportunity of being in Iraqi airspace to carry out practice attacks on military installations and on occasions the Tornados were partnered with Harrier GR.7 aircraft from 1 Squadron which were now operating ashore from Ahmed Al Jabbar south of Kuwait City.

Between the operational sorties there was an opportunity for some training, low-flying in Kuwait and using the ranges at Al Abraq and Udari. There were also Air-Combat Training sorties as well as fighter affiliation training with KAF F-18 Hornets and more combined training sorties with the Harriers.

Operation Bolton had replaced Operation Jural and now included all RAF operations in the southern NFZ. Thus when 12 Squadron took over responsibility for the Kuwait detachment in early May, the Tornado GR1 force was supporting three simultaneous operational detachments: six aircraft remained at Incirlik for Operation Warden, and six more were at Al Kharj with a further twelve at Ali Al Salem for Operation Bolton. With a full calendar of training exercises and the MLU programme in full swing, the Tornado squadrons would be stretched to cover all the commitments; however responsibility for Operation Warden was returned to the Jaguar force at the end of September.

Over the summer months 617, 17 and 14 Squadrons took part in Exercise Maple Flag from CAF Cold Lake base. The exercise included aircraft from Germany, UK, New Zealand and the US as well as the Canadian hosts. Domestic exercises included a station exercise at Lossiemouth, during which aircraft were sent to Kinloss in a simulated chemical threat environment, to practise the ability to deploy at short notice.

Strategic Developments

The Strategic Defence Review (SDR), published by the British Government in July included some far-reaching developments for the Tornado GR1 force. The WE177 nuclear weapon had already been withdrawn earlier in the year, so the strike role, once the primary role of the Tornado GR1 in Cold War days, had been given up completely. The SDR also signalled the end of the maritime role for the Tornado GR1B, although 617 Squadron would complete one last JMC exercise in October. In this latter exercise the squadron took part in large antishipping packages, flying against ships from Germany, France, Netherland and the Royal Navy as they sailed around the northern coast of Scotland. The exercise alternated daily between blue water and coastal operations and the squadron mounted two daily waves each of four or five aircraft simulating Sea Eagle tactics.

The final fallout from SDR was the confirmation that RAF Brüggen would close in 2000 and that 17 Squadron would be disbanded in early 1999. ‘I had been tipped off by a mate at High Wycombe (and sworn to secrecy) that the squadron was going to go while we were at Goose Bay,’ recalled Wg Cdr Coulls, OC 17 Squadron, ‘so I was the only one who knew it was coming, although rumours had been flying for a couple of months. Jock Stirrup, at the time AOC 1 Group, came down about halfway through to tell us formally. The leadership challenge was an interesting one… we had been away from home for five of the previous six months and still had a month left in Kuwait and now a massive dose of uncertainty had been introduced. However, we got away with it and left with a good reputation.’

In September 1998, 14 Squadron resumed Operation Bolton from Ali Al Salem (AAS) Air Base. The operational pattern was much as it had been earlier in the year, except that political tension was mounting once more, after Iraq declared in August that it would not, after all, cooperate with UNSCOM. Following further diplomatic activity, on 31 October Iraq announced that it would cease all forms of interaction with UNSCOM. Even so there was very little activity below the NFZ over the next two months, making the flying over Iraq pretty dull. Apart from ‘counting flies by the thousand, interspersed with particularly uninspiring (and very definitely alcohol free) evening meals at the Kuwait Officers’ Mess,’ Flt Lt D.W. Hales thought that the ‘operational highlights were forty-five degree dive with [inert] PW II at Udairi range and a few opportunities for HE strafe at Al Abraq.’ The squadron also carried out some air-combat training and some affiliation training with the KAF F-18 Hornets. At the beginning of November, 14 Squadron handed over to 12 Squadron.

After more diplomatic manoeuvring at the UN, the Iraqis reneged on an agreement to cooperate with UNSCOM and as a result it withdrew all its personnel from Iraq on 11 November 1998. The following day, the US and the UK warned Iraq that it would face a substantial military strike if it did not return to full compliance with UN Resolutions. On 14 November, the US and the UK authorized the launch of an initial wave of strike aircraft. The Tornado crews in Kuwait had planned and briefed their mission and were just about to walk for the sortie when they were cancelled. At the last minute, Iraq had agreed to ‘unconditional resumption of cooperation’ with UNSCOM, so the planned air strikes were called off. However, Iraqi cooperation was short-lived and only a month later the political tension had escalated once more

In early November, Wg Cdr S.G. Barnes, OC 12 Squadron, had taken over as detachment commander at AAS and had ensured that a number of contingency plans were in place in case the squadron was called upon again for operations. ‘As things progressed, and the op looked more likely,’ recalled Wg Cdr Barnes, ‘the formation leaders were co-opted into the plan. Throughout, the squadron engineers were tremendous and produced the aircraft we needed for each wave. They moved equipment and weapons to satisfy the requirement for four aircraft per wave with TIALD pods (we had only four) were they could.’

RAF ground crew of 14 Squadron at Ali Al Salem (AAS) air base, Kuwait, during Operation Bolton. In the background is a battle-damaged HAS.

Desert Fox – Night One

The deadline for Iraqi compliance with the UN resolutions passed on 16 December and US and UK forces were authorized to fly airstrikes, which the US military named Operation Desert Fox. The detachment at AAS flew three operational waves early that evening. As there were just four TIALD pods available for all of the operational waves, only the leader and Number 3 within each four ship carried TIALD pods: thus within each pair one aircraft self-designated before cooperatively designating for the wingman. The first four ship was led by Wg Cdr Barnes with Flt Lt J.E. Linter with each aircraft armed with two PW II. They were tasked against the SAM-3 site near Basra (with each pair attacking a different radar system within the site) and then bombing a radio-relay site just to the north. The attack was planned so that SAM site and relay station were far enough apart for each TIALD aircraft to mark two different targets. As they neared the target area, the Tornados met with light anti-aircraft fire, but no missiles were fired at them. The lead aircraft attacked the SAM-3 site successfully, but the TIALD pod on Number 3 aircraft did not work, leaving Flt Lt Linter to use the only serviceable pod to mark both of the Desired Points of Impact (DPIs) at the radio-relay station.

Sqn Ldrs M. Royce and L. Fisher led the second wave against targets on Tallil airfield and a radio-relay station just to the north at An Nasiriyah. ‘The lead pair dropped [destroyed] a large hangar on the northern side of the airfield with three PW IIs and the back pair removed a pair of HAS on the southern side of the runway,’ wrote Flt Lt Royce later. ‘One HAS exploded quite spectacularly turning night into day for about twenty seconds; such was the force of the residual explosion.’ In the Number 4 aircraft, Fg Off A. Robins recalled that: ‘all targets were hit, including a massive secondary explosion on the HAS… a very large mushroom cloud came up to meet us… we thought we’d hit a nuke… someone said “OOH that’s gotta hurt” (a Fast Show quote) and we all sped off hurriedly in batwing and burner. I remember that nobody landed with any extra fuel that night… USN had thoughtfully loosed off some HARMs at a SAM-6 site, and there was loads of triple-A as they put up a lot of stuff against us.’ It later transpired that the hangar at Tallil had contained the ‘Drones of Death’ – Czech-built L-29 Delfin (Dolphin) training aircraft, which were being modified as remotely-piloted vehicles to carry biological weapons and the HAS had been an ammunition store. ‘Satellite imagery the following day showed scorched land and no sign of there ever having been a HAS.’ reported Flt Lt Royce.

The third four ship, led by Flt Lt J.P. Griggs and Sqn Ldr T.N. Harris, took off shortly after the first one. They were to attack a Republican Guard barracks at Al Kut and once again all aircraft were armed with two PW IIs, with only lead and Number 3 carrying TIALD pods. ‘We decided we would do a “double run” guiding our own bombs then, as soon as they impacted, switching to the target for Number 4’s bombs which were already in the air,’ reported Sqn Ldr D. Armstrong, who was flying the Number 3 aircraft. ‘In the event, this was a bad idea… not enough time to get fixed on the second target and too much pressure on our own target run knowing the bombs were already flying.’ The sortie also ended with some excitement. ‘Our leader got Roland launch warnings linked with a flash on the desert floor as we approached the Kuwaiti border on the way home,’ continued Sqn Ldr Armstrong. ‘He immediately went into his evasive manoeuvre and banged the wing tanks off. Jez said it was the longest two seconds of his life after he hit the jettison button’ As it turned out, the flash on the desert floor was caused by US Navy aircraft dropping their weapons on a ‘dump’ target, of which the RAF detachment was unaware because of communications difficulties with the USN ships; it transpired that the simultaneous Roland warning was also spurious, caused by microwave links in the desert. ‘The engineers gave Jez the bill for the tanks,’ added Armstrong.

In the meantime, six crews from 617 deployed to AAS on 17 December to support the operations. ‘We arrived just after the first trip had taken off and we awoke the next morning to the participants mooching about having faced the reality of combat’ remembered Sqn Ldr A.K.F. Pease. ‘They had had a couple of close calls with Roland launches… Jez Griggs had jettisoned tanks and taken evasive action. Those of us who deployed from 617 Squadron were not used in anger. We did some training flights in Kuwait and having deployed thinking we would be away for a couple of months we actually got home in time for Christmas which was a bonus.’

Desert Fox – Night Two

On the second night of the operation, 18 December, the Tornado waves were launched with enough time spacing between them for all aircraft could carry a TIALD pod and self-designate their own targets; in turn, this allowed a much more compressed attack. Wg Cdr Barnes led his formation against the SAM-3 site at Tallil, attacking the Low Blow and Perfect Patch radars and two HQ buildings within the complex. Once again the attackers were met with very light triple-A, but no SAMs were fired. As Wg Cdr Barnes later summarized the sortie ‘the plan “ran on rails” and all DPIs were hit successfully.’

‘Night two saw us doing a coordinated bombing run on the Republican Guard Barracks at Al Kut,’ recalled Sqn Ldr Royce, ‘with a whole bunch of US bombers and the standard SEAD and fighter escorts. The enemy sent up quite a fierce triple-A defence but no missiles (though I’m sure the EW assets had neutralized whatever they may have had to hand; I had never seen so many HARMs fired at one sitting).’ Once again, however, the difficulty in coordinating with the US Navy was illustrated when their formation ahead of the Tornados slipped back on their ToT. ‘We later calculated that their bombs were within 10sec of dropping through our formation/canopies and hitting the lead aircraft,’ reported Fg Off Robins.

The third wave carried out their attack in the early hours of 19 December. This successful mission, led by Flt Lt Griggs and Sqn Ldr Harris, was also tasked against targets in the Al Kut area.

Desert Fox – Night Three

On the third night of operations the Tornados were armed with the new PW III 2,000lb weapon. ‘DPIs were running out and I had argued (forcibly) with HQ that some of the targets were not worth risking lives over,’ recalled Wg Cdr Barnes. ‘I had proposed sending a two ship only, but we were re-allocated more sensible targets. The target area was Al Kut, close to the 32nd Parallel, and the targets were Low Blow, Perfect Patch and two HQ buildings (déjà vu). There were real problems with coordination as we couldn’t contact the ship… we didn’t get the correct detail and we ended up doing our own thing de-conflicted by height and time, but running in a clockwise direction with the rest of the package going the opposite way. There was a lot of triple-A en-route and particularly in the target area. SEAD reported some missiles fired at the package… but I did not see any. Three DPIs were hit, and Number 3 guided his weapon safely into open desert having misidentified the target. I think this was the first operational use of PW III and at the very least validated tactics and procedures with this weapon. The ground crew piped me into the shelter on return (a piper standing on top of the cab of one of the tractors) leading the aircraft to the shelter, which was very emotional.’

A second wave, led by Sqn Ldr Royce took off shortly after the first wave. This formation, tasked against bunkers and another radio-relay station just outside Basra, was also loaded with PW IIIs. However, the mission was cancelled while the formation was flying a holding pattern before they crossed the border into Iraq, and the aircraft returned to AAS with their weapons.

‘In all 12(B) Squadron dropped forty-eight PW II and four PW III accurately,’ concluded Fg Off Robins. ‘Notable moments were the US Navy trying to kill us… and a fine young navigator, Jonny Meadows, dragging a bomb off the DMPI into the desert because he wasn’t (correctly) happy with his TIALD picture. The poor navigators had to “stir the porridge” on some dreadful pre-acquisition pictures in the early-ish days of TIALD: often pictures would not bloom until very late, very tricky in the increasingly legal world of targeting.’

 

Operation Barras – the Hostage Rescue

SAS soldiers at Gberi Bana

The seizure of 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment and their accompanying Sierra Leonean Army Liaison Officer could have turned the whole situation on its head. Instead after a period of negotiation in which half the hostages were released by the West Side Boys the remainder were released in a dramatic assault by British Special Forces accompanied by elements of the 1 PARA. The operation was fraught with danger and required the Prime Minister Blair to accept the potential loss of a significant number of personnel if one or more of the Chinook helicopters were shot down with upwards of 60 SAS personnel on board. Instead, it proved to be a turning point in the whole campaign even though the RUF, which had been the main focus for the British forces, was not involved, as well as sending a wider signal about Britain’s commitment both to its forces and to Africa in general.

The West Side Boys and the Seizure of the Royal Irish Patrol

The Royal Irish Regiment replaced the 2nd Battalion, Royal Anglians in the STTT role and within a few weeks found themselves with 11 of their personnel taken hostage. Their roulement with the Royal Anglians had occurred without any major problems; the Royal Anglians were needed back in the United Kingdom to prepare for their forthcoming deployment to Northern Ireland and the Royal Irish were the next duty general light infantry battalion. Like the Royal Anglians their deployment of some 200 personnel consisted of a training team plus a defence force based around their C Company.4 At the same time, other assets in country were steadily reduced. The Chinook force had departed after the rescue at Kailahun in July and the Special Forces contingent also largely withdrew, which meant that they had less back-up than their predecessors but this was not perceived to be a problem. It was generally assumed that the RUF would not return to offensive operations until November when the rains would have stopped and there was a window of time to bring as much of the SLA through the STTT process as possible.

The WSB were one of a number of armed militias which would have been called brigands in an earlier error. Their name derived from the New York Street gangs. Writing in The Times Michael Dynes characterised the West Side Boys as:

Drugged, drunk and dangerous, the West Side Boys have created an extra layer of chaos in war-torn Sierra Leone since their renegade militia broke with President Kabbah’s besieged government three months ago. The 30-strong force believed to be responsible for the capture of 11 British soldiers is renowned for youthful brutality and swaggering confidence. They are fortified by a seemingly infinite supply of so-called ‘morale boosters’, sachets of gin or vodka that are gulped down on an empty stomach to help them keep fighting, and are clad in a ragtag uniform of boots, T-shirts, baggy jeans and wraparound sunglasses.

They had been led by Johnny Paul Koroma, the head of the 1997 coup, who by September 2000 was a colleague of President Kabbah. Koroma had decided to back Kabbah in May and the WSB had been one of the militias that had initially supported the government against the RUF. The WSB therefore had links to the government but as Koroma had decided to base himself in Freetown he was replaced as leader of the WSB by the self-style Brigadier-General Kallay. Kallay was a defector from the RUF but retained some loose links to the RUF that were never entirely clear and would provide a source of concern for the hostage negotiators. Under Kallay, the WSB had drifted away from Koroma and the Sierra Leone government and they had ignored a subsequent Sierra Leone Government ultimatum to enter the DDR process and disarm. Instead, they chose to set up a base in a collection of huts at a village called Gberi Bana on Rokel Creek, a fast-flowing river near the Occra Hills. From here they terrorised the local community extorting from them for their various needs.

The relative calm was disturbed however by unforeseen events. On Friday 25 August 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment and an accompanying Sierra Leone Army liaison officer were sent out on a routine patrol to visit the Jordanian UNAMSIL battalion based some 60 miles east of Freetown. The patrol was based on three Landrovers, one equipped with a heavy machine gun, and led by the company commander, 9 They were told by the Jordanians that the local villages were no longer in the hands of the West Side Boys who had apparently vacated the area. The company commander therefore decided that this was an opportunity that should be exploited and that it would be a good move to talk to the locals to start to get a feel for the area in preparation for UNAMSIL taking control. On arriving at the village of Magbeni the patrol was overwhelmed by at least 25 heavily armed West Side Boys whose armament included a Bedford lorry equipped with an antiaircraft gun. Instead of starting a firefight the company commander sensibly decided to avoid confrontation and the patrol was seized and taken prisoner. The manner of their capture was to cause considerable embarrassment in Whitehall, because of the earlier British criticism of the capture of UNAMSIL personnel in May, and the Company Commander was subjected to a Board of Inquiry. The Royal Irish were rapidly moved by boat across the creek to the nearby village of Gberi Bana, the main WSB base where they would remain until freed 15 days later.

Negotiation and Planning

As soon as it was realised that the patrol was missing back at their base at the Benguema Training Centre an intensive air and surface search began in the remaining hours of daylight. As daylight faded PJHQ was alerted and the search for the missing patrol was resumed the following morning. However, the patrol was not found and it soon became discovered that the patrol had been taken hostage by the WSB.

The treatment of the hostages varied between atrocious behaviour, including beatings, mock executions and witnessing various members of the WSB abuse their other captives, to acts of friendliness. Much depended on the individuals concerned and their relative state of mind. This largely depended on the level of alcohol and drug consumed by their captors on any given day. However, in general, the British Army personnel were comparatively well treated in comparison to their Sierra Leone Army Liaison Officer and the leadership of the West Side Boys viewed them as useful bargaining counters.

Whilst the British forces in Sierra Leone were operating under the jurisdiction of the Sierra Leone government it was readily apparent that the government of Sierra Leone lacked the necessary expertise to undertake negotiations for the release of the Royal Irish. Instead, President Kabbah allowed the British to undertake these negotiations themselves. A specialist team was rapidly put together which drew on experienced negotiators from the Metropolitan Police and also various military representatives. The negotiations were led by the Commanding Officer of 1 Royal Irish, Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Fordham, who in the words of Tim Collins, then working directly got the Director of Special Forces in London and subsequent Commanding Officer of 1 Royal Irish, was:

an able and clever man, who with the help of Metropolitan Police negotiators was able to effect a rapport with the terrorists. We in London knew that the hostage takers were impressed by his seniority and enjoyed talking to him as ‘equals’, and I’m in no doubt that he kept them as calm as possible and so bought time for a potential rescue operation.

The British government also encouraged the former WSB leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, to use what influence he had with the group to obtain their release but this ultimately proved far less than was hoped.

The negotiating team were soon able to make contact with the West Side Boys and talks began initially with their leader, Foday Kallay, present. The West Side Boys made a specific demand for a satellite phone and the number for the BBC World Service in return for the release of all the hostages and equipment. The telephone was provided, together with a number for the BBC World Service. A further agreement was made to provide fuel to drive the British vehicles out. Later that evening (30 August) after the agreed time had passed the Jordanian UNAMSIL battalion reported that five British hostages had been freed. They reported that all the hostages had been subjected to mental abuse, including mock executions. This partial release encouraged the view in Whitehall that progress had been made and that negotiations should continue to try and obtain the release of the remaining captives. This was viewed as the most likely avenue for success. Moreover, continuing to negotiate gave additional time to prepare military alternatives. The negotiations with the West Side Boys continued over the next few days but, significantly, their leader, Kallay, was no longer present. The local United Nations leadership learned that there was dissent within the ranks of the West Side Boys and there were doubts whether Kallay remained in command or was even still alive. The release of the five Royal Irish captives and the response of the British to this appears to have encouraged the WSB to expand their demands. These swung between safe passes to the UK to start university degrees to posts in the government of Sierra Leone and almost certainly depended upon the individual actually negotiating at a particular point in time.

Whilst all this was taking place the Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition called for British forces to be withdrawn from Sierra Leone and queried what they were trying to achieve. They were also very critical of the vulnerability of the small numbers deployed and argued that this hostage seizure reflected a confused government policy. A Times leader highlighted the predicament of the government:

The 11 were too few; they were off guard; they were unprotected. They had better be rescued fast, by negotiation or by force, if the Government is not to be held culpably reckless of the safety of Britain’s Armed Forces. The character and conduct of this mission must then be re-examined.

The Shadow Defence Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith noted:

This is a matter of deep concern and our thoughts go out to the families of those who have been captured … Whatever else happens, the Government must not lack the resolve to take whatever measures are necessary to secure their release.

In other words Duncan-Smith, a former Guards officer, backed the use of force to release the hostages if it proved necessary.

Whilst a negotiated settlement was the preferred solution, preparations for military options were begun almost as soon as news of the Royal Irish seizure was received. Such an operation was traditionally the preserve of Britain’s Special Forces but the scale of it forced them to seek additional help from the regular army. From the beginning it was emphasised to ministers that such an operation would be an assault and not a classic rescue operation such as the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege. The size of the West Side Boys contingent estimated at 200–300 and their location spread over a number of villages with a river dividing them in half precluded such an option. Two military options were developed. The first, an emergency assault, would have been used if the lives of the hostages were thought to be at imminent risk and thus it would not have been at a time of the military’s choosing. The second option, a deliberate assault, was a planned attack aimed at freeing the hostages at a time chosen by the commander in the field.

The notice to move of various units was reduced and SAS personnel were recalled from Kenya where they had been on exercise. Tragically this led to a couple of SAS personnel being killed in a car accident on their journey back to the Kenyan capital. As for the regular army, ironically, it was the A Company of 1 PARA, which had missed out on Operation Palliser, which was the Airborne Lead Company on call and they formed a major component of the hostage rescue mission – Operation Barras. Rumours about the deployment and use of the SAS began to surface quite early. A Times report of 30 August stated that the SAS had been sent into the jungle to track down the rebel hideout. This was a little premature and soon afterwards Geoff Hoon considered proposals for a rescue operation. They were approved and the initial deployment of units commenced over the weekend of 3—4 September 2000 with reconnaissance elements deployed into the jungle a couple of days later.

Given the likelihood of significant casualties the government did not want to choose the military option unless they really had no alternative both Hoon and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to weigh up various risks. The deployment of forces deep into Sierra Leone might be detected, and thus lead to precipitous action by the West Side Boys against the hostages. Yet, their exact location and well-being needed to be established. If an emergency assault was necessary, time was critical especially as an emergency assault would take at least 15 hours to mount from the United Kingdom. It was therefore agreed to the deployment of the requisite forces to Senegal to shorten the response time to around six hours. At the same time the authority to launch an emergency assault was delegated to the British High Commissioner and the Commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone to further shorten the time required.

The elements of 1 PARA officially became part of the rescue plan on Wednesday 30 August and they began working out their requirements to deal with the village of Magbeni which was south of the creek whilst the Special Forces would release the hostages held in Gberi Bana. The role of 1 PARA was threefold. Firstly, it would act as a diversion for the WSB who would be confronted by attacks on both sides of the river simultaneously, Secondly, it would prevent the WSB forces south of the river interfering with the rescue of the prisoners north of the river. Thirdly, by engaging directly with the West Side Boys 1 PARA was to severely reduce their capabilities and thus limit their actions in the future. The 1 PARA elements were based on a reinforced company group (A Company) with extra battalion assets including sniper teams, the Patrols Platoon, heavy machine gun sections and a mortar section. The inclusion of these assets was made to maximise the options of its commander and the firepower that could be deployed to help offset the numerical advantage of the WSB as it was acknowledged that there could be no back-up forces should the company become pinned down.

Some of the members of the company had only joined it a few weeks before from basic training and there was some discussion about replacing these inexperienced soldiers. However, it was decided that as they had passed training replacing them would have a negative effect on the individuals concerned and the company. A Company moved on Saturday 2 September to the OMC and then to Dakar where their training began from Sunday onwards. The forces were held at Dakar to avoid detection and thus not encourage the WSB to take any precipitous action against the hostages. It did mean that they were still a few hours away from the WSB camp should an immediate response be required and this would involved spending a number of hours in a cramped Chinook before the mission began if an emergency assault was suddenly required.

Other preparations for a deliberate assault were taken in parallel. This included getting three Chinook to self-deploy initially to Dakar and also to bring forward the deployment of RFA Argus from the United Kingdom so that she could be diverted to Sierra Leone if needed. It was hoped that she could be just off the Sierra Leone coast by the following weekend and thus available as an alternative base for the Chinooks closer to the WSB base but out of view from the land. She also embarked the equipment for a field medical unit to provide increased medical facilities to support an assault should it be needed.

Further meetings and discussions by radio with the West Side Boys occurred and in one radio discussion a demand for supplies was made and some were given. However, little substantive progress was made over the weekend and on Monday 4 September approval was given by the Defence Secretary for the forward deployment of the leading elements of the Task Force to Sierra Leone, although it was decided that the Chinook helicopters should remain at Dakar. This meant that the rescue force could be picked up by the Chinooks on the way rather than for the troops to be sat in the helicopters for a number of hours prior to an assault. The Chinooks were held back because it was felt that the deployment of the soldiers could be hidden but if the helicopters were seen, which was likely, the West Side Boys would take this to be a sign of imminent British action and act against the hostages. At this stage it was believed that the balance of risk favoured accepting a longer reaction time rather than cause a precipitous West Side Boys response.

Negotiations continued on 6 September. However, Kallay was still missing and those West Side Boys involved seemed increasingly unpredictable. In discussion with the negotiating team on 6 September the officer in charge of the patrol sounded tired and demoralised indicating that the mood in the village where they were being held was bad. However, the negotiations were continued and a portable generator was handed over. The West Side Boys even indicated that the negotiating team could expect good news on Thursday 7 September and the next 24 hours were identified by the negotiating team as important in determining whether the West Side Boys were serious about further releases.

However, no good news was received and the mood at the daily COBR meeting in London was sombre. British Special Forces had managed to get close enough to the WSB base by the Tuesday but had not seen any sign of the hostage for some 24 hours. At the most recent meeting with the WSB it was clear that the group were making preparations to move and there was a real concern that the hostages might either be killed or handed over to the RUF as a bargaining chip. It was therefore decided on 7 September to recommend that the following day’s ministerial meeting make the decision whether to launch a deliberate assault in light of developments on the ground. To facilitate this it was agreed that the Chinooks should also be deployed to Sierra Leone and, as RFA Argus had not yet reached the area, the risk of the Chinooks being detected accepted as less than the dangers of the WSB taking flight with the hostages. At the subsequent ministerial meeting it was decided that the time had come to take military action. The meeting was briefed by the Director of Special Forces’ Chief of Staff. According to Tim Collins who was there:

It fell into two parts: Operation Barras, the rescue, and Operation Amble, which aimed to involve the local SLA on the periphery, in order to give them some credit for the apparent outcome and to demonstrate the effectiveness of the British training to any other not-so-innocent bystanders.

We would strike at dawn. The Chinooks would suppress known enemy billets on their approach, and their door gunners would take down the 12.7mm heavy machine guns as they landed on the football pitch. SAS teams already in place would provide covering fire. Simultaneously, Lynx helicopters from the Special Forces detachment would strafe the area to the south of the river, preventing use of the captured vehicles and more importantly the captured machine gun, keeping reinforcements at bay and creating an opportunity for the Para distraction force to land and assault the rebel village of Gberi Bana to the south.

The main assault troops, guided from the football pitch by the observation teams already in place, would close in on the hostages and take them to safety. A four-man team would go after Kallay. We wanted him alive. A sixteen-strong troop would cover the rescue force and dispatch any West Side Boys who tried to interfere.

Despite the protestations of the representative from the Prime Minister’s office it was decided that British forces would not conduct any follow-on operation (Operation Amble) but that the Sierra Leone Army should be encouraged to clear the West Side Boys from the Occra Hills as soon as possible thereafter.

Kallay then returned to the negotiations with new political demands as well as for some equipment and provisions. The political demands were impossible for the British government to meet and the West Side Boys seemed keen to secure still more hostages. The view in Sierra Leone and at that day’s Whitehall meeting was that the negotiated release of the remaining hostages was most unlikely and that their lives were now in extreme danger.

The Deliberate Assault and its Aftermath

The commander on the ground indicated that his preferred intention was to proceed with the deliberate assault at first light on the following day – Saturday – and Ministers approved this. However, it took longer than planned to get the ground forces into position and the assault was put back by 24 hours. At first light on Sunday 10 September a deliberate assault was launched. Overwhelming force was used to achieve tactical surprise and to try and maintain a level of engagement that would paralyse any West Side Boys response, thus minimising the risk to the assault force and to the hostages. Chinook and Lynx helicopters flew in at very low altitude to achieve surprise as daylight broke. The Lynx helicopters laid down suppressive fire aided by the reconnaissance party on the ground and a government of Sierra Leone Hind attack helicopter which was added into the package at the last minute when one of the Lynx helicopters had technical problems and would not work. Two Chinooks flew directly over the location of the captives on the northern side of the river and Special Force troops disembarked by rope. The rescue team safely snatched the hostages but one of the rescue team, Bombardier Tinnion, was critically wounded. In a brilliant and highly dangerous piece of flying an RAF Chinook returned to picked him up despite a heavy fire-fight and flew him to RFA Lancelot, a naval landing ship in the port of Freetown, that was set up to act as the main casualty receiving point. However, Tinnion died before he reached the ship despite the best efforts of the medical team accompanying the assault.

Meanwhile, in the operation on the south side of the river A Company of 1 PARA landed in two waves from the third Chinook south of the river to clear the village of Magbeni of West Side Boys. The aim was to neutralise the heavy weapons of the West Side Boys, recover the vehicles lost when the patrol was seized and destroy the military facilities available to the West Side Boys. Unfortunately the landing site used by the paratroopers turned out to be a swamp. As the ground was open and close to the villages the reconnaissance team had not been able to physically test the ground and had assessed it as the firmest ground available. The PARAs therefore had to wade 150 yards through chest high swamp to approach the village of Magbeni from the west. In almost a repeat of the attack on Goose Green during the Falklands Conflict one of the early casualties was the commander of the assaulting force along with most of his command team. His deputy quickly took over and completed the operation and the village was cleared of WSB, their other captives freed and the vehicles of the Royal Irish were retrieved and flown out.

In summing up the operation at a press conference Geoff Hoon stated:

The operation sends a number of powerful messages. Firstly, it is a yet further demonstration of the refusal of successive British Governments to do deals with terrorists and hostage takers. Secondly, we hope the West Side Group and other rebel units in Sierra Leone will now realise the futility of continuing unlawful operations and instead accept the rule of law and the authority of the democratically elected Government of Sierra Leone. Thirdly, we hope all those who may in future consider taking similar action against UK Armed Forces will think carefully about the possible consequences and realise there is nothing to be gained by such action.

Hoon neatly summed up the various constituents that the rescue was aimed at. For the government the hostage crisis was about managing risk. Issues about casualties, proportionality and the decision to use force were inextricably linked with concerns about potential winners and losers from the deliberate assault. A great deal was at risk for the British government. Its’ attitude towards ensuring that its hostages were released and the manner in which they were released sent signals to the RUF and to other groups within Sierra Leone, the African continent and globally. If the assault had indeed failed and there had been a significant loss of life then the policy of the British government towards Sierra Leone would have been forced to change and almost certainly involved the complete withdrawal of British forces. The resultant impact on the RUF, UNAMSIL and the Sierra Leone government would have been considerable. Moreover, it would have raised questions about government intervention policy three years before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As it was the operation was a great success and had a major impact on the situation in Sierra Leone.

Debunking the Flying Porcupine Myth

A Sunderland in Action

The Aeroplane – Published April 12, 1940

A Short Sunderland four-motor flying-boat of the Coastal Command was engaged with six two-motor Junkers Ju. 88K bombers while on convoy duty off the coast of Norway on April 3. The Sunderland shot down one of the Ju. 88s in flames, another was forced to land in Norway, where the crew set it on fire before being arrested and interned. The rest tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb the Sunderland. The Sunderland’s first and second pilots were both slightly injured by bomb splinters, and some of the boat’s controls were damaged, but it returned to its base at the end of its patrol. The Sunderland had previously driven of a German reconnaissance aeroplane which had been shadowing the convoy. Later, four bombers (believed to be Ju. 88Ks) made an attack on the ships but were driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Soon afterwards, the six Ju. 88Ks appeared. They probably intended to renew the attack on the convoy, but paused to dispose of the Sunderland first – a move which proved a tactical error.

The Sunderland was often called the `Fliegende Stachelswein’ in the British press – but was that just a propaganda myth?

From the earliest days of service, the Sunderland was regarded as a heavily armed aircraft by the British and Empire press, even to the extent of using terms like `Flying Fortress’. This was mainly due to the four belt-fed Browning .303 guns in the tail turret. It’s often overlooked that the three other guns were pan-fed .303 Vickers K guns, with a far lower rate of fire and small ammunition supply. It is unlikely that the Luftwaffe was impressed by this armament, having larger calibre, longer range and more powerful cannon in their machines.

The initial inadequate armament was boosted throughout the war with the addition of the mid upper turret and guns below the wings in the galley hatches. By the summer of 1943, the Sunderlands of Coastal Command faced the threat of long-range German fighters with a success rate that has become legendary. The Ju88s of V/KG-40 patrolled in packs but on more than one occasion, a lone Sunderland was able to fight off the assault and return to base. Perhaps the most frequently quoted battle is that of Flt Lt Colin Walker and crew, flying EJ134 of 461 Squadron, on June 2, 1943. As their patrol ended, eight Ju88s were spotted and in the ensuing 45 minute battle, they claimed three fighters shot down and several others damaged, although Luftwaffe records do not show a loss that day. One gunner on the Sunderland was mortally wounded and the aircraft so badly damaged it was beached at Praa Sands in Cornwall.

This is commonly cited as evidence for the Germans having nicknamed the Sunderland `Fliegende Stachelswein’ – the `flying porcupine’. But how likely is it that the Germans gave the enemy such a name? And how likely is it that a German nickname would become well known in the UK?

Actually, the 1942 propaganda booklet, `Coastal Command’ describes the Sunderland as having `a very wide range and an armament formidable enough for it to have been nicknamed `flying porcupine’ by the Germans.’ An earlier 1940 Christmas Quiz in The Times asked: `What British aeroplane do the Germans call `Fliegende Stachelswein’?’ Clearly they expected their readers would know the phrase. But just what incident was the question referring to? A clue lies even further back in The Times of September 11 that year in an article `A year’s work of the RAF Coastal Command,’ which stated:

`The Germans have a wholesome respect for them, and it is a pilot of more than average courage who would dare to tackle one unaided. With their guns sticking out at all angles, they seem to be able to fire in any direction. Because of their bristling armament, the Germans call them Fliegende Stachelswein.’

There were at least three incidents that the public would have known about in 1940 which proved the Sunderland’s reputation for defence: two occurred during the Norwegian campaign, although perhaps the most dramatic was over the Mediterranean when Italian fighters attacked an aircraft with the War Correspondent Alexander Clifford on board. Sunderland L5804 encountered three Macchi Mc200s on July 28: claiming one shot down in a long battle described in some detail in Clifford’s write-up for several newspapers.

Equally dramatic was an encounter on April 3, in Sunderland N9046, piloted by Flt Lt Frank Phillips. The Sunderland was on patrol of the Norwegian coast, when they had a skirmish with two Ju88s before running into six more. The official Air Ministry announcement stated, `While engaged in patrol duties over the North Sea yesterday (Weds) afternoon, a flying boat of Coastal Command, RAF, encountered six enemy aircraft of the Junkers type. One of the latter was shot down and seen to fall into the sea. The remaining Junkers broke off the engagement and our aircraft resumed patrol.’

The stark statement hides the reality of the battle in which Cpl Lillie in the rear turret was cool enough to hold his fire until the Junkers was only 100 yards away. He watched his prey turn away sharply and spin into the sea. After the badly damaged Sunderland made it safely home, Phillips was awarded a DFC and Lillie the DFM.

It seems that N9046 was the original `Flying Porcupine’. The incident was even used in adverts by Short Brothers soon after the attack.

Later that month, another Sunderland, N9025, fought off a Bf110 over Molde Fjord. The 110 was later reported to have crashed as a result of the damage it received. But the Germans had their share of success against the Sunderlands over Norway, with L5799 lost on April 7 and L2167 lost on April 9, both to a Bf110.

Ironically, the British wartime public never got to see one reason the Germans might have regarded the Sunderland as a porcupine. For much of the war, Sunderlands operated with the dipole ASV radar aerials on the rear fuselage, making it look rather like a spiky hedgehog. But any images showing these aerials were censored in the British wartime press. Even today, these retouched photos are still often used and consequently continue to obscure the importance of radar in the U-Boat battle. And there’s no evidence that the aerials led German aircrew to call the Sunderlands `Stachelswein’.

In 1940, the British needed to be able to celebrate how good their aircraft were – even if only when fighting off attackers. So it seems someone just invented the name.

Africa WWI

Askari soldiers at shooting practice in German East Africa.

Africa was affected by the war in many spheres: military, political, economic, and social. The results were not the same everywhere. In areas where there had been actual fighting, notably in the German colonies, the people suffered greatly. In the French colonies, where the burden of conscription had been heavy, there were anti-colonial protests and widespread resentment. Indeed, in many areas the colonial authorities’ hold on power was weakened: their military were redirected to the war effort; markets and trade routes were disrupted; and the economic recession and growing unemployment that followed the war generated their own tensions.

Military recruitment had temporarily strengthened existing colonial armies, but many of the newly recruited troops perished. The actual number of casualties will never be known exactly, but it was undoubtedly large: of those recruited by the French almost 200,000 lost their lives, while nearly 100,000 lost their lives in the British campaign in East Africa. For the soldiers who survived the war, the experience broadened their view of both African affairs and world politics. They understood the causes of the war and the nature of imperialism, and could begin to consider the impact of colonialism on their own countries. Many acquired practical skills and a degree of technical education that they were able to put to good use after the war. For many the experience of Europeans in combat that they acquired during the war comprehensively undermined notions of white superiority.

African economies were affected in several ways. There was increased production of agricultural and mineral commodities for the war effort, but taxes were also increased and development expenditure cut. For example, Nigeria’s expenditure increased by about £1,400,000; in 1915, despite reduced revenues, FF5,860,000 were sent to France from French West Africa. In addition, various colonies raised relief funds and local war subscriptions. The economic losses took other forms too, associated with political disturbances, wildcat revolts, the scarcity of essential commodities, abandonment of development projects, the conscription of able-bodied men, and general discontent and growing unemployment in a number of cities. The dislocation of populations, shortage of shipping, and high costs for freight led to panic and an aggressive search for alternative markets. In the early months of the war, the withdrawal of German traders from regions where they had been the primary buyers of export crops, led to a loss of income for many local traders and producers. Where army recruitment had been intense many villages and rural areas were devastated by the loss of productive labor, with the number of male farmers declining considerably. The war and immediate post-war years also witnessed widespread food shortages and epidemics, including the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918–19.

A major shift occurred in the organization of foreign trade, which created new tensions between Europe and Africa. During the war, many African export traders were displaced by foreign firms that manipulated war conditions to their advantage. French and British companies dominated the important export business, backed by their colonial governments. In addition, these firms took control of businesses deserted by the Germans, thereby controlling the import trade as well. Furthermore, foreign firms established combines that forced down producer prices, emerging after the war as large firms with enormous power over the market and prices in general – all at the expense of African producers.

Germany lost its African colonies, which were shared out as ‘‘mandated territories’’ by the newly created League of Nations. The Belgians took over Ruanda-Urundi, South Africa received Namibia, the British obtained Tanganyika and northern Cameroon (added to their Nigerian colony), the French took the rest of Cameroon, and the British and French divided Togo. The expectation was that the European powers would serve only as guardians; in practice, this meant little or nothing to the African population, who were still treated as colonial subjects. When the League of Nations was dissolved in 1940, the status of these mandated territories was left unclear. The expectation that these ‘‘guardians’’ would prepare the countries for self-government was largely ignored.

There were other notable changes to the pattern of colonial rule. In January 1914, for example, the British Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria were amalgamated. In 1917 a large part of western Egypt was transferred to Italian Libya, and was then administered as three units (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzān). The triangle of land to the northwest of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was transferred to Italy, also in 1917. In 1920 the French created the colony of Upper Volta from parts of the Niger, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire. Upper Volta was subsequently divided in 1932. Thus the modern map of Africa began to acquire its current shape.

Many of the economic and social changes affected politics, contributing to the emergence of African nationalism. Colonial conquests and the war had taken from Africans many of their businesses and administrative jobs. They began to realize that they would have to insist on – perhaps even fight for – reforms if they were ever to regain what they had lost. War propaganda had condemned Germany for wanting to dominate the world, and by 1919 the principle of self-determination had become widely known. Soon the right of all people to determine their own affairs had developed from being an anti-German slogan to one that the African elite could capitalize on – what was right for Europe was equally right for Africa. Even though independence was still distant, a spirit of national consciousness had begun to develop among Africans.

The colonial authorities by and large ignored this pressure from the African elites, and the expectation that the end of the war would bring power and prestige to Africans was not realized. Early leaders of the nationalist movements in Africa were anxious to see constitutional reforms that would give educated Africans a greater role in determining their own affairs, and political parties began to emerge: the National Congress of British West Africa, for example, was founded in 1920 to demand far-reaching political reform. Small concessions were granted in the 1920s, allowing a few people from the educated elite to sit on legislative councils in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. More significantly, in North Africa revolts in Egypt had led to its independence by 1922.

Another political outcome of the war was that it enabled the colonial governments to consolidate themselves. Even as African participants in the First World War began to expect remarkable changes in their lives, colonial governments were planning ways to make their control of Africa and its resources more permanent. The contribution of Africans to the war effort were simply ignored. Having won the war, the European powers in Africa felt even more confident of their ability to rule there: some officers expressed the opinion that they would remain in charge of the continent for ever. In some areas, such as the Belgian colonies and South Africa, colonial repression became more entrenched. Whether repressive or not, the victorious colonial powers shared one goal: the economic exploitation of Africa. In view of the devastation caused to their economies by the war, they saw the control of Africa as the best way of recouping their losses and rebuilding their economies.

Further reading: Boahen, A.A. (1985) UNESCO General History of Africa. Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880–1935, London: Heinemann. Digre, B.K. (1987) The Repartition of Tropical Africa: British, French and Belgian Colonial Objectives During the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference, Ph.D. thesis, George Washington University. Lunn, J. (1999) Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War, Oxford: James Currey. Page, M.E. (1987) Africa and the First World War, New York: St. Martin’s Press. Reigel, C.W. (1989) The First World War in East Africa: A Reinterpretation, Ed.D. thesis, Temple University.

British Armour 1940-42

By nearly every standard the British army was much better equipped than the German army from the beginning to the end of the war. Even more surprising given the relentless impressions to the contrary is the fact that the British army had more tanks per soldier than the German army and the US forces in Europe. There was even a period when the much smaller British army had an absolutely greater number of tanks. In the latter part of the war, most of the tanks used by British forces came from the USA, but Britain’s own tanks, and adaptations of the standard US tank, were probably superior to US tanks. Some of these British tanks had the edge on German tanks too. Even if the Germans did achieve a certain qualitative superiority in some respects, they never achieved both qualitative and quantitative superiority.

Richard Stokes was a relentless critic of the quality of British tanks. Oliver Lyttelton recalled that the chief parliamentary troubles of the Ministry of Production concerned tanks, and that Dick Stokes was his principal opponent. As Stokes put it in a debate on production in July 1942:

I should not feel comfortable if I were sitting in a British tank with a 2-pounder gun with an effective range of 600 yards, or an even bigger tank with a 6-pounder gun which has an effective range of 1,200 yards, taking on a German tank with a 13 or 14-pounder gun with an effective range of 2,000 yards. A Minister who has no better to tell us than that, stands condemned, and the Government stand condemned, and the sooner those responsible get out the better. I want to know who was responsible for nothing being done from the period September, 1939, to July, 1940, and who has been responsible for apparently doing nothing from June, 1940, to the present time to bring out something equivalent to the German Mark IV tank.

Stokes was a supporter of 80-ton tanks designed from 1939 by a committee headed by the Great War tank design veterans. The actual design was by Sir William Tritton and his firm William Foster of Lincoln, the man and firm who had designed the first British tank of the previous war. The group were labelled ‘The Old Gang’ and the prototypes therefore labelled TOG 1 and TOG 2. In response Lyttelton accused Stokes of supporting a tank that the army did not want, which was too slow and unreliable. Stokes continued to attack on the issue of tanks right through the war. Such was the continuing pressure that the government conceded a Secret Session debate on the subject in March 1944, and after the war a parliamentary report was produced. These attacks were very influential in creating the general perception, which endures to this day, that there was a serious problem with British tanks.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne complained that British tanks in Libya were no match for the Panzer IV. British tanks were armed with the 40mm 2-pounder gun while the Panzer IV had a 75mm gun.

Although it was widely believed from 1941–2 that British tanks in North Africa were inferior to German in quantity and quality, this view was shown to be incorrect by an official history published in the 1950s, by Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s history of the Royal Tank Regiment published in 1959, and in his later work. Throughout the North African campaign between 1940 and early 1943, British forces had a two- to threefold tank advantage in medium and heavy tanks over the German forces, a figure which would be reduced somewhat by including Italian tanks, but was still overwhelming. For the November 1941 offensive (Operation Crusader) British and imperial forces in North Africa had over 300 cruisers (mostly Crusaders) and 200 infantry tanks (Matildas and Valentines), together with large numbers of light tanks, and large reserves of all types. By contrast the Germans had fewer than 174 of the comparable Panzer IIIs and IVs, and the Italians 146 13/40s, with no reserves. Operation Crusader was a success.

Yet by early 1942 the Germans and Italians had counterattacked and were deep into Egypt. Their tank forces were still comparatively weak: at the end of August 1942 the Germans had only 166 Panzer IIIs and 37 Panzer IVs. On the eve of the Second Battle of El Alamein, which started the definitive rout of the Germans and Italians, they had 172 Panzer IIIs and 38 Panzer IVs fit for battle, as well as 278 Italian tanks. This compared with over 900 fit medium tanks with British forces, of which 488 were of British manufacture.

What the qualitative difference was between the tanks is very difficult indeed to establish, but the picture presented by critics in Parliament in 1942 in particular, and echoed ever since, is deeply flawed. That all British tanks in the Middle East had the 40mm 2-pounder gun until late 1942 is broadly correct, but the idea that many German tanks carried a much more powerful 75mm gun from around 1940 is misleading. The Panzer IV did have a 75mm gun, but it was a low-velocity gun firing high explosive. This turned out to be a very useful feature for a tank gun, which the British and Americans adopted by using a dual-purpose 75mm gun (as mounted in the Sherman and later in other tanks). But in regard to tank-mounted anti-tank guns the Panzers were no better equipped than British tanks. In North Africa up to May 1942 Panzer IIIs, which in contrast to the Panzer IVs did have anti-tank guns, had 50mm (short) anti-tank guns, which were no better than the 40mm 2-pounder. The other side of the equation was the armour. One study suggests that in 1941 all the main British tanks (Valentines, Matildas, Crusaders) and the US Grant were superior to any available German type in North Africa. Up-armoured Panzer IIIs capable of resisting British tank guns only started arriving in December 1941.

Where German forces had an early advantage was in the non-tank long 50mm anti-tank gun and in the very small numbers of 88mm anti-aircraft guns used as anti-tank weapons. Britain did not introduce a dual-purpose anti-tank/anti-aircraft gun of the 88mm sort but it had plenty of 94mm (3.7in) anti-aircraft guns. By May 1942 there were 100 6-pounder 57mm anti-tank guns with British forces in the Middle East. This was a successful anti-tank gun, which following its production in the United States became the standard anti-tank gun for US forces too.

Superior German tanks appeared in North Africa in the spring of 1942, but in small numbers. In May 1942 the new long-barrelled 50mm gun was first deployed on German tanks in Africa; and the long-barrelled 75mm gun in June 1942. In August 1942 there were 73 of the former on Panzer IIIs and 27 of the latter on the IVs. At the Second Battle of El Alamein there were 88 Panzer IIIs with the long 50mm and 30 Panzer IVs with the long 75mm. Improved British tanks were not far behind and arrived in quantity. In June 1942 the first 57mm 6-pounder Crusader arrived, of which 78 were fit in late October 1942. This gun was more effective as an anti-tank weapon than the US 75mm dual-purpose gun and, at least in later versions, as effective as the German long 75mm gun as well and would be used in tanks to the end of the war. The summer of 1942 also saw the arrival of very large numbers of Sherman tanks from the USA, armed with a 75mm long anti-tank/HE gun. Three hundred had been offered to Churchill in June 1942, and were put on seven ships in July, one of which was lost, but the tanks were replaced. By 11 September, 318 had arrived. In other words, if there was a German superiority in tank gun and armour quality it was very small and very short-lived indeed.

The old view espoused by Basil Liddell Hart that the British army was reluctant to embrace the tank has been decisively criticized by historians who now suggest the British army overemphasized the use of the tank, especially independently of infantry. British armoured divisions were, as of 1940, very tank-heavy, and based on the idea of fighting tanks with tanks equipped with anti-tank guns. Between April 1940 and May 1942 British armoured divisions had two armoured brigades, artillery and engineers, and very little infantry. Their medium tank strength was 300, three times that of a contemporary panzer division. From May 1942 until the end of the war one armoured brigade (150-plus medium tanks) was replaced with a whole infantry brigade, and the artillery increased. However, the armoured division was still thought of primarily as a weapon for fighting tank formations, with the infantry there to help the tanks. Only in 1942 and 1943, with experience from North Africa, was the role of the tank downgraded. This led to the recognition of the need to have tanks designed to attack things other than tanks, expressed in the introduction of the Sherman and its dual-purpose gun.

Of particular concern to some was the new heavy tank named after Churchill himself, which also had the 40mm 2-pounder gun. Oliver Lyttelton, in his poorly received speech, developed a defence which depended on the story of a profound weakness in British tank forces: ‘We started the war with no modern tanks, we lost all the armoured equipment which we had in France in June, 1940, although that equipment would by itself have had little value today.’  Lyttelton’s argument was that lots of tanks were needed quickly, and that had meant deciding to produce the Churchill tank with its 2-pounder even though the tank had not yet been made or tested. High levels of production and high quality did not go together.

Churchill, in a brilliant winding-up speech, also made great play of the weakness of British arms in 1940, especially tanks, attacking one of his antagonists in 1942, the Secretary for War responsible for tanks to early 1940, Leslie Hore-Belisha. He also insisted, as he had in earlier speeches, on the massive growth in British arms production since 1940, a point on which he was undoubtedly correct. He noted the huge amount of materiel which went to the Middle East: ‘from this country, from the Empire overseas and to a lesser extent from the United States, more than 950,000 men, 4,500 tanks, 6,000 aircraft, nearly 5,000 pieces of artillery, 50,000 machine guns and over 100,000 mechanical vehicles’. According to Churchill about 2,000 tanks had been sent to the Soviet Union. In his view the losses in the Middle East were not due to failures in production.

The critiques of early and mid-1942 were to cease with the reversal of British fortunes in the Middle East in the autumn. The 8th Army under Montgomery, supplied with huge quantities of equipment, including Sherman tanks and lorries from the USA, overwhelmed the weak German and Italian forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The imperial army marched west to meet up with US forces which had landed in Morocco, and the mostly British 1st Army, in Tunisia. In a great and conclusive victory in early 1943 North Africa was cleared with vast numbers of Germans captured, causing losses to Germany comparable to those of Stalingrad at a tiny fraction of the cost in lives. Churchill survived and prospered, never to be under such pressure again. Complaints about the quality of British tanks died away, though Stokes would take up the fight again in 1944.