Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era I

In the years after the end of the First World War the RAF became deeply involved in a series of imperial campaigns as the British sought to impose their will on the sprawling regions of the globe they now controlled or for which they were responsible. During the interwar years air forces came to be identified as an ideal and cost-effective way of maintaining order and control in the face of rebellions and insurrections, and not just by the British government. With air campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in particular the RAF forged a role that rendered it a crucial tool in the fight to retain control of imperial possessions at relatively low cost at a time when London was desperately attempting to rein in spending. As is often the case, the received wisdom is at odds with the reality, but there is little doubt that for a period of years after the armistice of 1918 the RAF’s role in imperial policing was a vital component of its survival strategy in the face of efforts by the older services to break it up. It is also true, however, that the RAF developed other reasons to justify its existence in the 1920s and played a broader role than mere force in the maintenance of empire.

Yet, as the RAF began the process of being scaled back into a peacetime force it was far from clear exactly what role it would play and thus how it should be constituted. From its peak of 300,000 in 1918 the RAF was reduced by 1920 to some 30,000 personnel and from 180 operational squadrons down to a mere twenty, with only two based in the UK. Some 10,000 machines and 30,000 engines had been sold off by 1920 as the British endeavoured to realign both expenditure and force composition in the economically uncertain yet diplomatically stable post-war era.

Political machinations were to aid the RAF’s survival substantially during this delicate period, and the appointment of Churchill as Secretary of State for the Air, even though he simultaneously held the role of Minister for War too, proved vital. Churchill was a keen advocate of air power as well as a shrewd and combative politician. Perversely, his position was bolstered by the overly ambitious and unrealistic tone adopted by Air Vice Marshal Frederick Sykes, then the CAS. Sykes had replaced Trenchard in April 1918, but Sykes’s vision for the RAF in the post-war world was out of kilter with the tone of government, which was increasingly founded on fiscal pruning and retrenchment in a world with few perceived or plausible threats. Sykes lobbied for the creation of an imperial air force to help bind the empire together, but his estimate of 348 squadrons with 110,000 personnel was both wildly profligate and politically naïve. Churchill moved Sykes on and brought back the obdurate and more politically astute Trenchard as CAS.

Yet they clashed too, and Trenchard’s initial estimates were forced downwards by Churchill. The new CAS wanted an RAF of 124 squadrons costing some £23 million to £25 million; anything less would be useless, Trenchard argued. Churchill offered £13 million, and eventually they fixed on a sum of £15 million. Trenchard’s willingness to accept this compromise resulted in the Lloyd George government looking upon him favourably, but the Air Staff’s hope that the RAF would be recognized as the principal arm of imperial defence was dashed.

Trenchard set in motion a series of initiatives and policies that would lay the structural foundation of the post-war RAF, based on realism, a degree of opportunism, and political expediency. His famous memorandum of December 1919 set out a vision for the RAF much more in line with the prevailing economic and political climate, one based on limited initial and immediate capability but focused more heavily on training and long-term establishment. Trenchard was attempting to lay the foundations of a permanent service with deep roots, and the Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell and the RAF Staff College at Andover were established to underpin this long-term vision.

Trenchard was, however, astute enough to recognize that though he and many of his staff saw the RAF’s future as a truly independent force with a strategic role, this was neither appropriate nor marketable in the early 1920s. The only way in which this future might be realized would be if the RAF could first embed itself in the defence establishment more completely, and in 1921 this was far from certain. Indeed, if there was a period when the RAF’s future was in some doubt it was then, as the army and navy manoeuvred to partition the air force. Later squabbles over the RAF’s future were more intended to squeeze concessions and commitments out of the Air Staff and the break-up of the RAF was never likely, but in 1921 it was a distinct possibility; the Air Staff and Trenchard were too canny to allow this to happen, however, particularly compared to the War Office, and most obviously over the policy that became known as ‘Substitution’.

From 1919 onwards the British government developed a policy of substituting mechanized equipment, such as armoured vehicles or aircraft, for traditional conventional forces such as infantry and cavalry, particularly in matters of imperial policing and control. This, it was contended, would reduce costs and lead to modernization. It was the Air Staff who saw this as an opportunity, while the War Office hesitated. The Air Staff’s policy of stepping in to fulfil the role of imperial control and policing proved hugely successful for the RAF, ensuring its viability. The link between aerial policing and the RAF’s future was clear; in one RAF memo in 1920 Trenchard noted that he ultimately hoped that the RAF would become the dominant force in imperial defence, this being the first step to becoming ‘more and more the predominating factor in all types of warfare’.

Though it was the revolt in Iraq and its aftermath (1920–1) that gave the impetus to Trenchard’s vision for a formal air control policy, the RAF had already been involved in imperial control missions before then. In 1919 the RAF deployed aircraft with some success in helping to put down the rebellion known as the Third Afghan War. Initially RAF efforts were directed towards supporting friendly ground forces but this was dangerous due to the operating conditions and limited in effect due to the quality of the available aircraft. RAF officers lobbied for a more coordinated and focused bombing effort to be targeted against Afghan towns, cities, and large encampments. Beginning in May the campaign had significant effects. Afghan settlements were largely incapable of dealing with the raids and considerable damage appears to have been inflicted, both physically and on morale. By the end of May RAF bombers were dropping around a tonne of bombs per day, many on Jalalabad, but it was a symbolic raid on Kabul itself that had the most significance. Carried out by a four-engine Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber originally designed to bomb Berlin, the raid was later considered by General Charles Monro, commander-in-chief, India, to be ‘an important factor in producing a desire for peace at the headquarters of the Afghan Government’. King Amanullah, the leader of the Afghan rebellion, pointed out the hypocrisy of the British, however, for while the bombing of London by the Germans had been condemned in the UK as barbaric and uncivilized, it appeared to be acceptable when perpetrated against non-Westerners.

This was a pattern to be repeated throughout the era. The RAF was more freely deployed around the empire against non-white peoples, but also against more remote targets; plans to use air forces in major urban centres such as Cairo or Calcutta, though set out, were never employed due to the obvious human and political costs. And of course, the most significant rebellion against British rule in the period, in Ireland, saw very little military use of the RAF at all, a policy Trenchard strongly adhered to. Though aircraft flew reconnaissance and resupply operations in Ireland, there is very little evidence of them being used in more offensive duties, even though senior British leaders and commanders hotly debated the option. By March 1921, in the closing stages of the fighting, the use of aircraft in very specific, controlled, and limited offensive operations had been authorized by the British government. Yet, even then the RAF employed offensive weapons in only 3 per cent of their flying time and in all probability caused no casualties.

Though the RAF could point to the success of the Afghan War, which concluded in August 1919, the aftermath was less satisfying. A drawn-out series of actions stretching into 1920, supported by the RAF, were conducted against recalcitrant tribes along the North-West Frontier as the British sought to restore order in the wake of the Afghan uprising. In these endeavours, the RAF was less able to shape events, and though some tribes were brought to order by air action alone, some were not, and ground forces had to be deployed in considerable numbers. Senior army and air force officers consequently disagreed about the decisive factors, and not always along service lines.

The campaign that highlighted the RAF’s role in imperial policing was that conducted in Somaliland in 1920 against Mohammed bin Abdulla Hassan—a so-called ‘Mad Mullah’—and his Dervish forces. The Mullah had increased his influence across Somaliland, further aided by the Germans during the war, and by 1918 the British were determined to act to impose their will on the area. In 1919 the War Office stood back from serious involvement, allowing Trenchard to make the RAF’s case for reinstating British rule, at minimal cost; just one squadron and no increases in ground support beyond what was already station in Somaliland. In short order the RAF spearheaded the campaign in January 1920, surprising and then scattering the Mullah’s forces, which were then mopped up by the ground forces, supported by air actions. The RAF’s involvement lasted around a month at a cost of just £70,000, with just three aeroplanes lost and no combat deaths.

Yet even in this much lauded campaign, debate ensued as to the actual level of effectiveness of the RAF’s actions. While army officers conceded that air actions had been crucial, it was argued that ground forces had still been vital elements, that the Somali Camel Corps had been weakening the Mullah by persistent action for many years, and that a combined campaign from the start would have yielded even better results. It was also true that the Mullah’s popularity was already on the wane by 1920 due to his increasing recourse to brutal methods of imposing rule, so that when calamity came, his troops melted away. The Mullah also weakened his position by abandoning his forces’ preferred guerrilla tactics for occupation methods, based on permanent bases and forts. These provided obliging and highly vulnerable targets for air attack.

Nevertheless, the tone of RAF operations in an imperial policing role had been set. Further success in Sudan underlined Trenchard’s approach. In a land of few roads to support modern ground operations and huge distances to cover with only a sprinkling of friendly troops to rely upon, the RAF was called upon in December 1919 to aid operations against the Garjak Nuer tribe, which would not toe the line and stop raiding other communities. H Unit, as the RAF contingent of just two DH9A aeroplanes and under thirty men was called, found the going tough at first with awkward operating conditions and evasive Nuer tactics. When both RAF aircraft were put out of action a third was flown in from Egypt, a distance of over 1,800 miles and an early example of the long and flexible reach of air power.

The turning point in the campaign came when the British ground forces, aided by the RAF, switched tactics to targeting the Nuer villages rather than seeking battle. The human cost was severe with children and the elderly paying the price. Cattle were targeted, and when supplies began to run out the Nuer submitted. RAF operations were highlighted by the army as being crucial to the success of the campaign, and again there were no RAF casualties. Indeed, the army’s main issue had been the small numbers of aircraft available when more might have expedited victory.

Ultimately the implementation of a formalized RAF air control policy was to come in Iraq in 1922, but it took two years to get there. Early in 1920, in his role as Secretary of State for War, Churchill was seeking cuts in expenditure for the garrisoning of Iraq, then standing at £18 million for a force that included some 14,000 British troops, backed by Indian and other local elements. Churchill wanted this to be achieved in part through substituting mechanized equipment for conventional elements, but the War Office baulked at the idea. Churchill turned to the RAF for a plan with the incentive of a £5–6 million increase in the air force estimates. Trenchard and the Air Staff took the initiative, citing early examples of the RAF’s effectiveness in the imperial role. Though it was not entirely possible at that time for the RAF to meet the requirements of Churchill’s policy for Iraq, Trenchard was ambitious enough to claim that it could, and came up with a scheme based on aircraft and supporting ground forces to plug the gap. It would require one hundred aircraft with around 4,000 British personnel and 10,000 Indian troops, all supported by a small number of local forces. Churchill’s enthusiasm was not matched by the cabinet’s support, however, and they remained unconvinced that a few aeroplanes could replace 100,000 troops.

It took the anti-British revolt in Iraq to force matters. The rising in Iraq against British rule broke out in the spring of 1920 just as the cabinet in London was still debating the rights of wrongs of Churchill’s air control scheme. The political squabbles mattered little as the Arab rebels scored a series of successes despite the presence of thirty imperial infantry battalions and five cavalry regiments, supported by artillery batteries and two squadrons of the RAF. Many in Britain were already set against British involvement in the region, for a whole variety of reasons, and the revolt stirred up yet more considerable political discontent. The RAF contingent flew increasing numbers of missions against the insurgents, though operating and living conditions were harsh.

For the RAF the initial shortage of aircraft was a major problem and in May they had only eleven functioning aeroplanes, eight of which were ageing BE-8s, though these were subsequently replaced by Bristol F.2b fighters. By August the situation was so desperate that Churchill authorized the RAF to employ chemical weapons if necessary, even though there were no useable bombs available. The army only held tear gas shells, though stocks had to be requested from Egypt, and it is unclear as to whether these weapons, or indeed any lethal chemical devices, were ever employed in Iraq by the British.

Aircraft built for European conditions struggled in Mesopotamia, with sand and dust causing problems for engines and airframes alike, while hazards such as plagues of locust and whirlwinds added further to the RAF’s problems. The aircrew despaired of the conditions, living in decaying tents, suffering extremes of temperatures, and existing off tins of rancid meat and dry biscuits. On his first ten days’ duties in Iraq one officer recorded:

We were up on eight of them before dawn, off to Diwaniyah where we had to fill up [with fuel] ourselves—no joke on a BF [Bristol Fighter]—then bombing of the Diwaniyah–Samawah area, landed at Samawah, again filled up by ourselves, bombed by ourselves, left again, bombed the same area again and landed Diwaniyah to fill up and back to Baghdad.

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Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era II

Flying boats on the Nile, 1930. Down route to the empire, Supermarine Southampton flying boats at buoys, probably on the River Nile c.1930. Long-range operations to Africa and the Far East were commonplace for flying boat crews for the two decades between the wars.

The reach of empire, 1928–39. Imperial air policing was advocated by the RAF in the interwar period as a cost-effective method of maintaining the British Empire. It paved the way for airline routes.

Initially called in on fire-fighting sorties, the RAF much preferred concentrated and focused raids and argued that these had a much more significant impact. Units also employed tactics whereby villages and civilians were targeted, often on the grounds of being reprisal raids, but with the general intention of degrading the support network for the insurgents.

By the autumn the revolt had been broken, but not until further resources had been pumped into the area, including yet more RAF aircraft from Europe. As some semblance of control and order was imposed, the scale of the effort to achieve success caused many in the UK to blanch. By December the British still had 17,000 of their own troops and 85,000 Indian soldiers based in Mesopotamia, at an estimated annual cost of some £30 million. General Haldane, commanding the imperial forces in Iraq, argued that he would in future need thirty-three infantry battalions and six cavalry regiments to maintain British rule; a wholly unrealistic figure both economically and politically in late 1920. The War Office suggested that a future commitment of one division would be able to hold Basra and the oil fields, but little else.

Trenchard’s views were already known on how Iraq could be policed and controlled principally through the efforts of the RAF, and his position was bolstered by the comments of Arnold Wilson, the chief British representative in Baghdad, who argued that aircraft had saved the day in the campaign in Iraq.

At a conference in Cairo in 1921 to resolve matters of administration and control of Britain’s overblown commitments across the Middle East, Churchill, by then the Colonial Secretary, started to push through the air control plan, backed by a range of other new measures.

Trenchard was well pleased with the outcome, but the War Office attempted to derail the plan, pushing for the break-up of the RAF; they argued that aeroplanes were auxiliary to troops and Air Staff policy was now working against this. The War Office’s initiative was swept aside by Lord Balfour and the Committee for Imperial Defence and Trenchard’s fully fledged air control scheme was given the green light by the autumn of 1921.

The adopted plan was for eight RAF squadrons, two British and two Indian infantry battalions, three companies of armoured cars, and other minor supporting forces to take on the task of delivering security and policing for Iraq. However, it was one thing for Trenchard and the Air Staff to offer up the new scheme; it was quite another to deliver it. Indeed, when the RAF, under the command of Air Vice Marshal John Salmond, took responsibility for security in Iraq in October 1922 the political situation was still in a state of flux. A bombing campaign in the north against insurgents under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud, supported by Turkish supplies and troops, yielded great success and included the first examples of the air evacuation and air insertion of troops, in both cases helping to swing the fighting in Britain’s favour. In the latter case Mahmud’s forces were threatening Kirkuk, secure in the knowledge that the roads from the south were impassable due to flooding. But 45 Squadron, under the command of one Arthur Harris, airlifted in 480 troops to secure the position and the threat evaporated.

A more coordinated effort in Kurdistan in 1923 again proved highly effective and the validity of the RAF’s policy for Iraq appeared to be vindicated. The success brought political benefit back in London too as it provided Trenchard with extra ammunition when facing the Salisbury Committee’s investigations into armed service relations, a battle the Air Ministry won relatively easily. Trenchard wrote to Salmond: ‘I cannot emphasize too much the value your successful command in Iraq has been to us.’

In 1922 the highly influential Royal United Services Institute published C. J. Mackay’s prize-winning essay, ‘The Influence in the Future of Aircraft Upon the Problems of Imperial Defence’, indicating the growing importance of the idea of air control and policing, while Wing Commander C. H. K. Edmonds, in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute in 1923, stated: ‘First, we are all of us imperialists, and we wish to see the empire defended as securely as possible. Second, we are all taxpayers, so we want the defence to be as economical as possible.’

By 1925 the success of air control was clear; costs for the security of Iraq had been reduced from £20 million in 1921–2 to under £3.5 million three years later, and the north and Mosul in particular had been secured against the Turks. Leo Amery, the then Colonial Secretary, and Sam Hoare, Secretary of State for Air, both toured the region in 1925 and noted the impact of the RAF. Amery stated that ‘the Air Force has transformed the whole situation in Iraq. It is due to its ceaseless vigilance that the work of political reconstruction has gone so smoothly’, while Hoare commented that ‘I cannot imagine a more striking testimony to the efficacy and economy of the air as the key for exercising control in suitable areas of the Middle East.’ It was of course fundamental to the success of British efforts that suitable political initiatives were undertaken, notably the incorporation of a collaborative Sunni elite into the administration of Iraq, though this of course was to store up problems for the future.

Unsurprisingly the RAF’s policy of air control was viewed as a cost-cutting model for other parts of the empire and British mandates and protectorates, though not always with success. In Palestine, the RAF had assumed responsibility for the control and security of the region in 1922, and over the ensuing years costs had been reduced and ground forces pared back. Much of the RAF’s responsibility centred on policing Bedouin incursions into Palestine. In 1929 the RAF’s scant forces were found wanting when Arab resentment over an upturn in Jewish immigration raised the idea of a Jewish National Home and precipitated an outbreak of attacks on Jewish settlements in which some 200 people were killed. Despite playing a part in bringing the troubles to an end it was clear that air control had not been sufficient and extra ground forces were deployed in the aftermath, though the RAF remained in command. When a more serious outbreak of trouble erupted in 1936, the commander, Air Vice Marshal Richard Peirse, wanted to employ harsh measures to regain control, but opposition to his ideas of bombing, martial law, and forced labour caused London to intervene. Peirse was replaced with Lieutenant General Jack Dill and more ground troops were despatched to quell the rebellion. It is doubtful whether the army’s measures were any less destructive, but the shift in policy brought RAF air control to an end in Palestine, though the RAF continued to play a key role in the region through to 1948.

In Arabia, however, the RAF enjoyed greater success in helping to resist the efforts of the Imam of Yemen extending his zone of control further south towards the British-controlled port of Aden. In 1921 the RAF deployed aircraft to Aden to support friendly forces in the region, and in the following year Trenchard recommended scaling down ground forces in favour of RAF assets; two battalions were subsequently withdrawn or disbanded. In 1926 the Imam’s forces had further encroached upon British interests, but the costs of despatching a significant ground force to deal with the matter were rejected as prohibitively costly. Trenchard stepped in with a scheme based on the RAF squadron in Aden supported by three armoured cars and some local levies. This came into force in 1928, and within two years the regular infantry had gone. The scheme worked effectively, the Imam’s power was curtailed, and he was forced, under aerial duress, to restrain his ambitions. Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence, wrote to Trenchard in 1928 extolling the virtues of air control policy: ‘This example [Aden] is a triumphant vindication of your theories.’

Elsewhere across Africa, the air control policy had less traction, despite the success in Somaliland in 1920. In Egypt the RAF played an important role in supporting British interests, but ground forces remained the main weapon in a densely populated nation, while in Somaliland, once order had been restored, the costs of developing a permanent air presence were considered too great compared to those of maintaining existing troops. In the Sudan in 1927–8, RAF aeroplanes had helped to put down a rebellion in the south of the country, though some grumbled that the air attacks had dispersed the rebels before they could be properly dealt with by ground forces. Nevertheless, the Air Staff continued to advance the idea of a full-blown air control scheme for East Africa, and it gained support from the local white settlers who were largely happy to see the disbandment of the East Africa Rifles. In 1934 a scheme was proposed in a joint army–air force report (authored in part by Air Vice Marshal Cyril Newall, a future CAS) to replace some ground forces with an RAF squadron and move to an air control model. The scheme foundered, however, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the previously stable situation was replaced by uncertainty.

In India, despite frontier successes, any broader RAF plans for a higher-profile role butted up against the peculiarities of the defence structures already in place and the position of the Indian Army. The value of air power was enhanced by the part played by the RAF in dealing with still-lingering troubles among Waziristan tribes in 1925, but as was often the case the air force and the army then differed on the real value of the air actions. A subsequent plan to expand RAF influence in the North-West Frontier came to nothing.

The RAF later played a role in the defence of Kabul in 1928–9, air-lifting civilians to safety, but a scheme in 1929 to expand air policing and control for the frontier failed because of the political consequences of putting Indian Army officers out of work. The great majority of available resources continued to be pumped into the Indian Army throughout the 1930s, leading to the stagnation of the air force, a matter largely unaddressed by the outbreak of the war in the Asia-Pacific theatre.

The RAF was also involved in more political and diplomatic imperial control and maintenance efforts in the interwar era. Long-distance flights from Cairo to the Cape were carried out by RAF aircraft, pioneering routes later developed by Imperial Airways. In addition, flying boats were to prove critically important in this wider global role in an age when few airstrips around the empire were capable of supporting large long-range land-based aircraft, or where other facilities were in short supply. Flying boats, which could utilize inland waters as bases, could patrol or reach regions more easily and help build or maintain the links the empire needed. If a support ship could be employed as well, the possibilities were significant. As early as 1919, long-range flying boat cruises were being trialled and by the mid-1920s flying boat expeditions were reaching out to Egypt and Malaya/Sarawak. In 1928–9 Supermarine Southampton flying boats conducted a fourteen-month world tour reaching Australia. RAF evaluations indicated the political elements of such tours, and that the cost was considerably less than that of sending a Royal Navy cruiser force. By the 1930s, the RAF’s view of specialized maritime air power had been largely focused on flying boats and seaplanes and this was to shape rearmament policy in the 1930s, and not entirely in a positive manner.

The issue of the RAF switching its maritime air power efforts towards flying boat development mirrored later debates about the impact air control and imperial policing had on the development of the RAF in Europe, particularly in terms of aircraft technology and notions of bombing. In the early 1920s the RAF had largely employed aircraft such as the Bristol Fighter and the DH9A in policing duties, but these aircraft had limitations and were phased out in favour of the Westland Wapiti and the Fairey IIIF. These aircraft were selected for their ruggedness rather than high performance.

There is little direct evidence, however, that the imperial policing role significantly shaped metropolitan RAF policies, procurement, and thinking in the 1930s. The tasks of air control were usually fulfilled by aircraft considered obsolescent by European standards, and governed by particular tactics and doctrine, developed specifically for each theatre. When air expansion was adopted in Britain in the 1930s, as a reaction to the emergence of German and Japanese threats, it was largely governed by its own inherent rationale.

Trenchard, in his final days as CAS in 1929, had offered a yet grander vision for air control in a paper entitled ‘The Fuller Employment of Air Power in Imperial Defence’, yet in truth the high point of the policy had already been reached, with political constraints and geographical limits hindering further expansion. As the 1930s progressed, the deteriorating political situation in Europe and then the Far East brought other issues to the forefront and the RAF was to be drawn into a different strategic environment.

Yet, there is little doubt that air control and policing had, despite its limitations, played a significant role both in ensuring the survival of the RAF and more widely in British imperial policy in the interwar era. It was best suited to relatively light-touch environments in open terrain with dispersed populations; there was little stomach for the bombing of more significant urban centres. Restraint in the use of air control was pragmatic on both political and military levels, issues that would be exposed and shaped later in the extreme emergency of the Second World War.

1st Cruiser squadron at Jutland

Battleship Thüringen fixes Black Prince in her searchlights in Willy Stower’s painting.

Claus Bergen’s take on the end of Black Prince.

The 1st Cruiser squadron on the eve of the battle of Jutland had remained unaltered since November 1915 when it had comprised the four armoured cruisers, Warrior, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and the Defence. Three of the squadrons names would become synonymous with the date, 31st May 1916 and the battle they fought on that day. When the guns fell silent and the ships started to returned home on the 1st June, the 1st CS would all but cease to have existed. The carnage heaped upon that squadron would see it disbanded until July 1917 and the arrival of ‘Fishers Follies’ the Courageous, Glorious and Furious. But thats a chapter outside our tale.

At the Battle of Jutland the obsolete ships of the 1st CS were deployed to form a screen to the front right beam of the Grand Fleet Battle Squadrons. As the two dreadnought fleets first came into contact on that Wednesday afternoon, the ships of the 1st CS lay in the waters directly between them. Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot ordered that his ships close up, with the Defence and Warrior moving closer to each other, while the Duke of Edinburgh was beginning to lag a short distance behind them. The Black Prince, for reasons unknown, slips here from the battles accounts, and we are only permitted an occassional fleeting glimps of her in the days recollections by others. With her loss we are deprived of both the ships log books and more tragically, her crews recollections.

Arbuthnot pointed his command towards the sound of the guns and on a direct course for the German light Cruiser Wiesbaden. The manoeuvre was also to place the four ships on a collision course with the oncoming Beatty and his the Battlecruiser Force. At around this time, 17:42, the Black Prince lost contact with the rest of her Squadron as it came into contact with the German forces. At 17:47 the two leading ships of the squadron, the flagship, Defence, and Warrior, having sighted the German II Scouting Group exchanged fire with them. With their 9.2″ shells falling short, the two cruiser’s turned to port in pursuit of their targets, cutting across the front of the battlecruiser HMS Lion, just as the fleet was deploying into line, ready for facing Scheer’s battle squadrons. To avoid a collision Beatty’s ships swung sharply away to avoid the armoured cruisers. Beatty’s Flag Captain Alfred Chatfield from on board Lion recalled “As a result of Arbuthnot’s orders, the armoured cruisers cut right across the battlecruisers just as the Grand Fleet began to deploy into its battle line. This manoeuvre could have caused an absolutely disastrous collision. At that exciting moment I saw the 1st CS leading from port to starboard across my bows. It was clear that unless I altered course drastically I should collide with one of his ships, so I jammed the Lion’s helm over and swung her under the stern of their second cruiser, which only cleared us by a cable’s length. By forcing the Battlecruiser Squadron off its course in the low visibility, which was then only five miles, Arbuthnot caused us to lose sight of the enemy fleet and he himself took the place of the battlecruisers as their targets.”

Boy 1st Class John Davies from on board the Duke of Edinburgh recorded “To tell the truth I had been brought up to believe that the British Navy was untouchable in warfare, I was expecting the German ships to go down one after another. So that when our Squadron, with the Grand Fleet, arrived at the scene of action, I was surprised to see some of our ships (Beatty’s battlecruisers) burning and out of control, sinking and helpless I was not frightened, but surprised to discover that the Germans had men and ships that were as good, maybe better, than ours. Our Squadron steamed on. Three heavy cruisers, the Black Prince had fallen out, we were firing our 9.2″s to starboard where the enemy were. Then our Admiral, Robert Arbuthnot, made the signal for the Squadron to turn into the enemy”.

Arbuthnot’s manoeuvre drew the German battlecruiser fire down onto his ships. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis, one of the Duke’s Royal Marines wasn’t surprise at his admiral orders, “Admiral Arbuthnot had made it abundantly clear in a series of addresses to the ships’ companies of the vessels under his command, that when he encountered the enemy he would close to the rather meagre range of our guns and engage remorselessly. In the action he put his precepts into practice, but the old ships of the 1st CS were no match for the German battlecruisers” The Defence and Warrior while cutting across the battlecruisers bows had begun to pour their 9.2-inch shells into the stationary Wiesbaden, which had only just survived an assault by the British destroyers. As the two armoured cruisers remorselessly pounder their German victim, the smoke of their 9.2″s drifted across the battlefield obscuring the German fleet from the Grand Fleet. We don’t know if Arbuthnot was aware of the consequences of his action. One modern historian describes him as “in a colloquial if not a clinical sense, insane”. Maybe he was trying to regain his rightful position within the fleets deployment, or maybe having the battered cruiser within his sights, he as as a dog with a bone. We don’t know and we can never know now. As the Admiral manoeuvred his ships, the Duke of Edinburgh was unable to follow the first two ships of the squadron and she turned to port (northeast). Duke of Edinburgh then to spotted the disabled Wiesbaden at 18:08 and the Duke’s Gunnery Officer on the day Lieutenant-Commander (G) J. K. B. Birch directed his guns on the German cruiser, firing twenty rounds at her. At around 18:30 the Duke had steamed to a position off the starboard bow of King George V, the leading ship of the 2nd Battle Squadron, where her funnel smoke was to obscured the German ships from the leading dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron.

If the Grand Fleet’s view of their German opponents was limited by the Warrior and Defence’s smoke, the German gunnery officers had a fine view of Arbuthnot’s two ships. Commander Günther Paschen on board the Lützow, noted how ” From left to right there appears in the field of the periscope, a ship, improbably large and close. At the first glance I recognise an old English armoured cruiser and give the necessary orders. My arm is clutched, “Don’t fire, that is the Rostock!” But I can see the turrets fore and aft. “Action! Armoured Cruiser. Four funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Range 76hm. Salvo!” Five salvoes rapidly follow, of which three straddled; then there was repeated the now familiar sight of a ship blowing up”. Derfflinger following in the Lutzow’s wake didn’t even have time to train her guns and fire on the Defence before she exploded. In an instant, at 18:20, Arbuthnot and his men were gone.

Now the Warrior was alone and the Germans switched their attention as she followed in the wake of her lost flag ship. Lieutenant Patrick Lawder, from on board the 4th BS Benbow wrote “I stopped to have another look and saw one of our four funnelled cruisers being heavily shelled. Splashes were all round her and one salvo straddled her quarterdeck, with one or two shots this side. At the same time, as the splashes rose a tall column of smoke, 200 to 300 feet high, rose from her quarterdeck, the smoke being lit up by the flame inside it in a very pretty way. She went on, however, and immediately afterwards was again straddled, but I didn’t notice any hits. There was a good deal of smoke about and I didn’t see what damage had been done by the explosion”

As the two ships from her squadron suffered, the Duke of Edinburgh was now a considerable distance behind the Defence and Warrior. Able Seaman Ewart Eades, a spare sight setter on ‘Y’ Turret noted how, “Our Gunlayer, Petty Officer Gunners Mate Rawles, said that the lens of the gunlayer telescope was getting fogged up with the spray and cordite smoke. I was sent out with some cloth to see if I could wipe the telescope lens from the top of the turret. Now I had a desire to see what was happening being young and without nerves or fear. However I looked and found that it seemed to me that we were between the Grand Fleet and German Fleet. Shells were going over us both ways. I saw that the Defence went up in flames and then the Warrior took a broadside and dropped out of line. I never did make the top of the turret for it seemed that the helm was put hard over. I was nearly decanted into the sea”. As the Duke swung away to extract herself from the fate of the Defence, her smoke added to the already reduced visibility through which the Grand Fleet was trying to peer.

The Duke manoeuvred to survive, having like her sisters blundered into the German fleet’s big guns, she watched as a torpedo attack undertaken by the German destroyers on Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers failed. But it did force the Duke of Edinburgh to evade one torpedo at 18:47. The Duke reported a submarine sighting at 19:01, although no German submarines were operating in the area. She was to make a second erroneous submarine contact between 19:45 and 20:15.

But what of the fourth cruiser of the squadron, the Black Prince? There were to be no positive sightings of her after 17:42 and the 1st CS initial contact with the enemy. But a wireless signal from her was received at 20:45, reporting a submarine sighting. During the night of 31st May–1st June, the British destroyer Spitfire, having been badly damaged in a collision with the German dreadnought Nassau, sighted what seemed to be a German battlecruiser, with the two widely spaced funnels typical of the German designs. The sighted “battlecruiser” was described as being “…a mass of fire from foremast to mainmast, on deck and between decks. Flames were issuing out of her from every corner.” The “battlecruiser” exploded at around midnight and it was later believed that the burning ship may have been Black Prince, with her two midships funnels having collapsed or been shot away.

The German account of the ship’s sinking describes how the Black Prince briefly engaged the German dreadnought Rheinland at about 23:35 GMT, scoring two hits with her 6-inch guns. She was by now separated from the British fleet, and Black Prince approached the German lines at around midnight. On sighting the German capital ships, she made to turn away, but it was already to late. The German dreadnought Thüringen illuminated Black Prince with her searchlights and then opened fire. Up to at least five other German ships, including the Nassau, Ostfriesland, and the fleet flagship, Friedrich der Grosse, joined in the slaughter. Black Prince replied to the German main calibre shells with her 9.2″ but her efforts were ineffective. Most of the attacking German dreadnoughts were within between 750 and 1,500 yards (690 and 1,370 m) of the lone cruiser, all but point-blank range for naval gunnery. The Black Prince was struck by at least twelve heavy shells and several smaller calibre, sending her to the sea bed within 15 minutes of the first German salvo. The German Official Naval History’s describes her end, “She presented a terrible and awe-inspiring spectacle as she drifted down the line blazing furiously until, after several minor detonations, she disappeared below the surface with whole of her crew in one tremendous explosion”. Of the 857 men on board that day, none were to survive and all were to find a grave in the cold north seas depths.

Having learnt of the loss of the Black Prince and the Warrior it was assumed by many that the Duke of Edinburgh, the only surviving ship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron would have been heavily mauled by the German fleet. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis serving on board the Duke of Edinburgh recalled afterwards how “by the time we arrived in the Flow it was common knowledge that three out of the four ships of our Squadron had gone down. It was to be expected, therefore, that the Duke of Edinburgh had certainly shared in the casualties, details of which we were asked to report by signal. The reply was, “One case of Rubella.” This was a mild form of fever contracted by a musician in the transmitting station. Compared with our consorts we certainly got off very lightly. Those that had survived felt guilt. Able Seaman Arthur Ford had missed the battle, as he had been sent on a gunnery course five days before it. When he learnt that his ship, the Black Prince, had been sunk with all “hands” he felt guilty. “My first thoughts were that I’d dodged the column and I ought to have gone with them. I did. I don’t know why but I did. I thought, “Why should I escape when all the others went west?” That’s the feeling I had for some time. “What a horrible end I’ve missed…” Imagine the different crews at their gun stations, I would know a lot of the men and what guns they were on. They were so exposed, the six inch guns were on deck with no shelter of any description, totally in the open. The guns had been brought up from the lower deck to the upper deck because they couldn’t fire them in rough weather in that type of ship. Can you imagine being half a mile away from the German High Seas Fleet with their 12″ guns. It would just blow them clean out of the water a broadside. Oh, it must have been a shocking, nobody able to do a thing, I doubt if they fired a shot hardly. But of course these things when you’re young these thoughts don’t last to long”.

The Duke of Edinburgh was to be the lone ship of the 1st CS to survive the battle, and was detached on the 1st to search for crippled ship’s or survivors. None of which she was to find. She returned to Cromarty in the afternoon of the 3rd June, where on the 5th of June, in Jellicoe’s post battle reorganization of his fleet, she was attached to the 2nd CS which comprised of the Minotaur (Flag), Cochrane, Shannon, Achilles, Donegal.

Armstrong 100-ton guns

Rinella gun, Malta, still on the original mount.

 

In the late 1800s, large muzzle-loading cannons were built by Armstrong’s Elswick Ordnance Company for the British government. They were built on the Armstrong system of a primary steel tube, with successive, shorter, wrought-iron tubes, heated and shrunk on the main tube. They had a 18-in (45-cm) bore, a little over 30ft (9m) long. The guns were first fired in 1884, but the weapons were not fully operational until 1889 owing to hydraulic system problems. The four original British guns were divided between Gibraltar and Malta and none of them were ever fired in earnest.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Woolwich manufactured several marks of large naval and seacoast Armstrong muzzleloaders, ranging from the 12-ton, 9-inch Mk IV to the 81-ton, 16-inch Mk I. Other big Armstrongs included the 38-ton, 12.5-inch Mk I; the 35-ton, 12- inch Mk I; the 25-ton, 12-inch Mk II; the 25-ton, 11-inch Mk II; and the 18-ton, 10-inch Mk II. The largest rifled muzzleloaders in British service were 17.72-inch, 100-ton giants that, with a 460- pound charge, fired a 1-ton projectile at a muzzle velocity of nearly 1,700 feet per second. Four were manufactured and were mounted in the defenses of Gibraltar and Malta.

The largest muzzleloading black powder cannons ever built were the Armstrong 100-ton guns which saw service with the Italian Navy and with British coastal fortifications on Malta and Gibraltar. They were purchased by the Italians first, to outfit a pair of new super battleships, each vessel having two turrets with two of these guns in each. To avoid being outclassed, the British ordered two guns for installation to protect the Grand Harbor of Malta and two more to protect Gibraltar. Today one survives at each location, and we are visiting the Rinella Battery in Malta, which was built to house one of the Maltese guns.

These guns had a maximum range of 8 miles, and was capable of piercing 15 inches of iron armor at 3 miles. It had a 17.7 inch (45cm) bore fired a 2000 pound (900 kg) shell with a 450 pound (200kg) charge of black powder. The gun itself weighed approximately 102 tons, and with its cradle and a shell the whole assembly came in at 150 tons.

Aside from the massive scale of the piece, the most interesting part of its design is actually the loading machinery. Because of the titanic size of the gun and ammunition, Armstrong designed a fascinating hydraulic reloading facility which makes up the body of the fortress in which the gun is set. A pair of steam engines drove a pair of hydraulic accumulators, which provided hydraulic pressure to move the gun on its carriage, to douse the barrel after firing, to hoist ammunition into position for loading and power a 60-foot (18m) ramrod to mechanically ram the charge and shell into place. Two mirror-image reloading galleries under the fortification operated in turn, giving the gun a sustained rate of fire of 1 round every 6 minutes – at least until its 120-round barrel life was exhausted.

Malta Batteries

In 1866, four coastal batteries were proposed, two on either side of the main harbor area. On the northwest side were established Sliema Point Battery and Fort Pembroke, while on the southeast side were Fort St. Rocco and Fort St. Tombrell. The Sliema Point Battery was built in 1876 with two eleven-inch and two ten-inch guns. In 1879 work began on Fort Pembroke, overlooking St. George’s Bay. It was completed at a cost of 13,730 pounds. The seventy troops stationed there serviced three thirty-five-ton twelve-inch rifled muzzle loader (RML) guns with a range of 10,000 yards.

Originally, these new coastal batteries were to be armed with twenty three-ton RML guns, but with the rapid development of technology, it became necessary to increase their size during construction, some being eventually armed with thirty-eight-ton RML guns firing 12.5-inch shells. Likewise, the protection of the batteries was repeatedly upgraded. While five inches of protective iron had been sufficient previous to 1866, the introduction of the twenty-three-ton gun led this to be increased to twelve inches. By 1878, twenty-eight inches of armor plating was deemed necessary to withstand the bombardment of the largest ironclad battleships.

It would seem that in their long possession of the islands, the knights had fortified every conceivable spot in the main harbor area. But if there was a chink in the armor, it was the Corradino Heights, directly across from Floriana and Valletta. The Turkish army had established batteries there in 1565, and the Hornwork at Floriana had been constructed to deal with any future threats from that direction. The British decided to build entrenchments on these heights and in 1871 began work on the Corradino Lines. These were completed in 1880 at a cost of 17,634 pounds and featured two sixty-four-pound RMLs.

Additional artillery positions were built around the main harbor area. On the northern or Marsamxett side, Fort Cambridge was built on the Sliema peninsula. It featured a single 100-ton RML, the heaviest muzzle loader ever built, with a maximum range of 14,000 yards, a gun crew of thirty-five, and firing a 17.72-inch shell. Begun in 1878, it was not completed until 1898 at a cost of over 19,000 pounds. Another new position on this side of the harbor area was Garden Battery, which was sandwiched between Fort Tigne and Fort Cambridge. It was completed in 1894 at cost of 7,806 pounds and armed with one 9.2-inch breech-loading (BL) gun and two 6-inch BL guns, all on disappearing mountings.

On the opposite or Grand Harbour side, the British built Fort Rinella, featuring another 100-ton gun similar to that in Fort Cambridge. Its massive artillery piece was mounted on January 12, 1888, with great ceremony. Delia Grazie Battery was then constructed between forts Ricasoli and Rinella. Completed in 1893, it was armed with two ten-inch and two six-inch BL guns, costing 16,344 pounds.

Sierra Leone, 2000

RAF Boeing Chinook HC.2s were the mainstay of the UK mission to Sierra Leone.

Securing Lungi airport was the first object of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.

Freetown and Lungi area (US Defense Mapping Agency)

At 10 am on 5th May, the decision was made to send the Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team. We left at 6 pm and after a refuelling stop we arrived at Lungi airport in Freetown at 6 am the following day. Government forces were rapidly falling back on the capital. The rebels were a major threat. The UN troops were the last line of defence but were in near panic. There were violent demonstrations in the capital and everyone was afraid of a coup. Brigadier Richards tried to bring together all the government leaders. On 7th May, we asked the lead company of 1 PARA to deploy. By 15th May, the situation had changed dramatically.

Lt Col Neil Salisbury, Chief of Staff, UK Joint Force Headquarters

16 Air Assault Brigade was only nine months’ old when it got the call to send troops into the heart of one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. Few members of the Brigade had heard of Sierra Leone in May 2000, as reports began to circulate in the Ministry of Defence in London that the country’s government was in danger of being toppled by a brutal rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Buoyed by the success of his ‘ethical foreign policy’ in the Kosovo crisis, Prime Minister Tony Blair was taking an increasing interest in the problems of Africa. The former British colony of Sierra Leone was seen by Blair and his then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, as a failed state that needed to be rescued. For more than a decade, the West African country had been convulsed by civil war, as rebel groups vied for control of the lucrative diamond mines. The RUF had gained a notorious reputation for brutality and its trademark was the amputation of a prisoners’ limbs by machete. For much of the 1990s, Sierra Leone had no viable government and its population had lived in fear as rival militia groups fought for control of the country and its mineral resources. While billions of dollars-worth of diamonds was illicitly exported from the country, the population’s standard of living hovered near the bottom of most international league tables.

In 1995, the Sierra Leone government was so desperate it employed the services of the South African mercenary company Executive Outcomes and managed to drive the rebels back from the capital Freetown. The British private security company Sandline then provided more assistance with the tacit approval of the Foreign Office in London. Stalemate on the battlefield had allowed the UN to negotiate a cease-fire and begin the deployment of a peacekeeping force, dubbed UNAMSIL. British diplomats played an important role in setting up the UN-led peace process and London was watching its progress closely.

During April 2000, the civil war re-ignited and more than 5,000 RUF fighters appeared to be advancing on the capital. Other rebel forces took hundreds of UN peacekeepers hostage and besieged the remainder in their bases. The whole country and the 11,000-strong UN force looked like being on the verge of collapse.

David Richards

In London, the Blair government decided this was shaping up to be a test of British commitment to the people of Sierra Leone. The Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood was ordered to dispatch part of its Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) to Freetown on 5 May to monitor events and prepare contingency plans for British intervention. An Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team (ORLT), led by PJHQ’s Chief Joint Force Operations Brigadier David Richards, arrived the following day and more JFHQ personnel followed soon afterwards. The JFHQ is a small, highly mobile headquarters team that is held on two days’ notice to fly anywhere in the world to co-ordinate UK intervention missions. It has enough communications equipment and supplies to run a brigade-sized operation for a couple of weeks before it has to be replaced by a better – equipped headquarters.

Richards led the British participation in the UN mission to East Timor late in 1999. He had a reputation for being very self-confident and relishing missions that apparently had little chance of success. The former Royal Artillery officer radiated optimism and was always cheerful, according to visitors to the British High Commission or embassy in Freetown during the UK intervention.

Over the weekend of 6 and 7 May, Richards sent a stream of reports to London that the rebels were within days of capturing the capital. Hundreds of UK passport holders were at risk, the government looked like it would fall and the UN troops were cowering in their bases.

Blair decided to act. PJHQ was ordered to dispatch an intervention force, initially to evacuate British passport holders, but the scope of the mission soon expanded to include supporting the Freetown government and the UN mission. Richards would command the operation from Freetown but PJHQ and Land Command turned to the newly formed 16 Brigade at Colchester to provide the initial land forces for the operation. The newly formed Joint Helicopter Command at Wilton would have to generate four Boeing Chinook HC.2 helicopters to provide the force with tactical mobility and RAF Strike Command’s No. 2 Group was tasked to get the force to Sierra Leone. This was just the type of mission 16 Brigade was designed to conduct and it would soon be held up as a ‘classic intervention’ mission. The pace of the operation was such that 16 Brigade’s headquarters would not get the chance to deploy to the West African country but several of its major units were in the thick of the action from the very start of the crisis until the autumn of 2000.

Richards’ team hunkered down in the High Commission in Freetown using its satellite communications equipment to bounce ideas back and forth to planners at Northwood during the days running up to the launch of the intervention. The plan went through numerous evolutions, as different force configurations, deployment schedules and tactical plans were considered, thrown out, modified or adapted. Central to all the planning was control of Lungi airport on a peninsula to the south of Freetown. With control of the airport, UK and UN forces could sustain themselves, bring in reinforcements and conduct evacuations of civilians. A second key requirement was securing a forward-operating base in a friendly, neighbouring country from which to mount the force. On 6 May, Senegal agreed to host the UK force and preparation ramped up considerably. Alan Jones, British Ambassador in Freetown, and Richards then got what was left of the Sierra Leone government to ‘request’ British military assistance.

Early on the morning of 5 May, the alert status of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA), had been raised and its commanders warned that they could soon be heading to Sierra Leone. It was then the UK Spearhead Lead Element, and was held at seventy-two hours’ notice to move, but the spearhead battalion was rarely mobilised for real. Spearhead duty is usually characterised by a stream of false alarms and chaotic preparations for operations that never happen. So not surprisingly, when news spread around the battalion’s Aldershot base after the Sierra Leone mission, morale rocketed. The Toms of 1 PARA began a period of frenetic activity to get themselves ready for action.

They moved to the UK’s Operational Mounting Centre at South Cerney in Wiltshire on the evening of 6 May to prepare to be loaded on board RAF aircraft in a ‘tactical configuration’. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Gibson was expecting his men to go straight into action as soon as they got off their aircraft in Freetown. On Sunday 7 May, Gibson and his battalion flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire in RAF Lockheed TriStars to Dakar in Senegal.

One of 1 PARA’s three rifle companies was on a training exercise in Jamaica as the crisis developed and could not get home in time, so 16 Brigade offered up a company of one of its air assault battalions, 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, to replace it. The Royal Irish company got as far as Brize Norton before Gibson declined the offer of its services. This was to be a Parachute Regiment only operation. More than 200 troops of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, would be used to reinforce 1 PARA over the coming week.

No. 2 Group and JHC were also ramping up their preparations. Over the weekend of 6/7 May, eight RAF Hercules from 47 and 70 Squadrons took off from Lyneham bound for Dakar. Four Chinooks then left RAF Odiham early on 6 and 7 May to fly to the British forward base in Dakar, via Portugal, Gibraltar and the Canary Islands. After a brief refuelling stop, the helicopters were airborne for Freetown on 8 May to support the evacuation operation.

The first phase was the insertion into Freetown – in a classic Tactical Air Land Operation (TALO) – of C Company of 1 PARA during the evening of 7 May. Richards called them forward to Lungi airport when rumours spread of a coup d’état in Freetown. The single Hercules was packed with 102 fully armed paratroopers whose job was to seize the airport ahead of the main body. It took them two hours to fly to Freetown from Dakar and the arrival of the paratroopers caused much surprise among the hundred Nigerian UN personnel who were still nominally in control of the airport.

The following morning, Ambassador Jones formally requested the start of the evacuation operation. At 10.30 am, four Hercules carrying D Company of 1 PARA and Gibson’s Tac HQ, as well as the heavily armed troops of 16 Brigade’s Pathfinder Platoon, landed at Lungi. Just ahead of them was a pair of Chinooks flown by 7 Squadron pilots. At the High Commission in Freetown, Richards and his team were getting ready to begin evacuating up to a thousand UK passport holders and other foreign nationals from the city.

With the arrival of the Chinooks, at 7 pm Gibson started to fly his troops from the airport peninsula to reinforce the High Commission in Freetown and begin the evacuation from a UN-run assembly area. The 75-mile road into the city went through what was thought to be rebel-held territory so the Chinooks were vital to the success of this phase of the operation. The evacuees were picked up by Chinook and then shuttled to Lungi airport, from where they were transferred to Hercules and flown to Dakar. This phase of the operation received much publicity at the time and the Blair government publicly declared this was the only mission of UK forces in Sierra Leone. Blair’s spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, was reportedly worried about how the wider intervention mission would be reported by the media so he ordered the focus to be on the rescue mission.

As the evacuation was under way, Gibson’s troops were pushing in-land from Lungi airport to set up a screen of blocking positions around the capital. They were not ordered to attack the rebels, just to hold their ground and return fire if attacked. There were little more than 500 paratroopers on the ground at this time but as they moved forward through the suburbs of Freetown, the effect on the population was electric. People came out to cheer. The presence of hundreds of heavily armed British troops rallied the morale of the government and its rag-tag army. Richards told them the British were not going to leave them in the lurch. The scope of the operation now began to expand and Blair in London decided that the British troops would stay to prop up the Freetown government and help the UN.

Lungi airport was not bustling with British activity. Some twenty-one Hercules flights over two days brought in 1 PARA and its vehicles, as well as evacuating British passport holders. It had taken 1 PARA sixty-four hours from getting its first call on 5 May to having its first troops on the ground in Freetown. The paratroopers were amazed at the speed of things, which had been organised mainly through a series of telephone calls and quick verbal orders. Some veteran paratroopers were even heard praising the speed at which the RAF had managed to get its aircraft and helicopters to Freetown. They were a tough audience to please.

Two giant Antonov An-124 airlifters were chartered from the Ukraine to fly from Brize Norton to Dakar with more of 1 PARA’s vehicles on 8 May. Back in the UK, PJHQ and 16 Brigade were preparing a second wave of reinforcements. A medical detachment of the Brigade soon followed 1 PARA. A battery of 105-mm Light Guns from 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery was sent to South Cerney and a Scimitar squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment was ordered to prepare to deploy. The RAF had no heavy-lift aircraft to carry the armoured vehicles and artillery ammunition to Africa so the Americans were asked to help. They could not provide any aircraft in time but PJHQ decided not to press the issue because a Royal Navy carrier group, centred on HMS Illustrious and a Marines amphibious task group, based around the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean with 42 Commando Royal Marines’ were only a few days’ sailing away from West Africa.

In the outskirts of Freetown, the rebel fighters of the RUF had not yet picked up fully on the fact that the British were now committed to defend the city. B Company of 1 PARA set up three blocking positions to the east of the airport and the Pathfinders moved past them to set up an early-warning post at Lungi Loi. When a group of RUF fighters approached the Pathfinder position during the night, they were engaged. The small group of British troops fired some 1,800 rounds. The rebels, many appearing to be high on drugs, could not return accurate fire and soon fled. The following morning, when the Pathfinders cleared the enemy positions, they found four dead rebels. Many more were believed to have been killed.

The impact on the rebels of this setback was profound. Their morale collapsed, just as the spirits of the government forces were raised by the arrival of the British forces. RUF troops were now in headlong retreat from the capital, with government troops in hot pursuit.

British forces continued their build-up at Lungi airport and continued to sustain a high profile around the capital to maintain civilian morale. Conditions were primitive and 1 PARA found Sierra Leone’s equatorial climate more of a challenge than the RUF. The sudden nature of the battalion’s deployment meant that it had not been able to secure enough of the right sort of anti-malaria tablets for its troops. Some twenty paratroopers and RAF pilots contracted the tropical disease.

By the end of the month, the Royal Marines had arrived off the coast and the hand-over with 1 PARA took place on 28 May. The RAF then flew the battalion back to the UK via Dakar. The operation was hailed as a great success. For no loss of UK life, 1 PARA had successfully stabilised a dangerous situation and contributed to the rout of the rebels.

Britain’s involvement in Sierre Leone was only just beginning. The RAF Chinook detachment remained and the British government decided to deploy a strong training team to build up the Sierra Leone army.

On 10 July, the RAF Chinooks took part in a daring mission to lift Indian Special Forces to relieve an Indian UN garrison, which had been under siege for several weeks in the interior of Sierre Leone

The 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, got its chance to deploy to Sierra Leone in the summer of 2000. It was tasked with establishing three company-sized groups of soldiers to act as training teams to the Sierra Leone army. The ‘training teams’ would be very different from other such missions in that they would be deployed as formed units that would be able to fight their way out of trouble in a crisis. Trouble soon found the Royal Irish.

By August, the RUF had evaporated after its apparent non-stop stream of set-backs but the interior of the country was still dominated by heavily armed militia groups of very shifting loyalty. One such group was known as the West Side Boys (WSBs), which had supported the government during the fighting with the RUF earlier in the year. The Royal Irish mounted regular vehicle patrols around Freetown to gather intelligence and try to establish some sort of contact with these militia groups.

On one such mission, an eleven-strong patrol was surrounded and captured by the WSBs. The soldiers were held hostage in a jungle camp, while the WSB leadership tried to negotiate with the British government. As these talks were going on, the British were preparing a rescue plan. A large contingent of Special Forces was moved in conditions of great secrecy to Freetown and was reinforced by A Company of 1 PARA. When the negotiations collapsed, the Special Forces were ordered to attack in order to rescue the hostages early on the morning of 10 September 2000.

The SAS and SBS rescue force was landed by Chinook and Lynx AH.7 on top of the village, while the paratroopers were landed at a nearby village to block any WSB escape routes. As soon as the first helicopters landed, a fierce firefight broke out. The hostages were soon freed but one SAS man was killed. Outside the main village, A Company were soon trading fire with rebels and the company commander and platoon commander were injured after British 81-mm mortar rounds detonated prematurely after hitting the jungle canopy.

One of the Chinook pilots afterwards told RAF News:

The fundamental key to the success of the operation was that the two-pronged assaults on the north and south camps had to be simultaneous. The Chinook was literally crammed full of paratroopers, all apparently totally focused on what they had to do, despite being in the unenviable position of having no control over their destiny while on board the aircraft. Approaching the target, we could see the enemy tracer being fired towards the aircraft. Fortunately, the Army Lynx did a superb job of suppressing the enemy positions, although seeing tracer passing above us did make us contemplate exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. The landing site turned out to be a waist-high swamp. Therefore after we lifted, we returned fire onto the enemy positions with the M-134 mini-gun, which firing at 4,000 rounds a minute, had a devastating effect.

The SAS neutralised all resistance in the village and the paratroopers helped clean up the objectives after the operation. The now-liberated British vehicles were under-slung under Chinooks to be returned to their rightful owners.

Although Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone did not directly involve the Brigade headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, many of its major units were involved. The operation was a classic example of the type of rapid intervention mission that 16 Brigade, and other elements of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, was formed to undertake. The combination of lightly equipped paratroopers, helicopters and air transport worked well, but some in the Armed Forces worried that British forces did not really face a first-class opponent in Sierra Leone. Many British soldiers were worried that they still lacked many items of battle-winning equipment that would make the difference against more determined and better-armed opponents.

Polish Air Personnel in RAF Service

Whatever negative feelings Medhurst, Boyle, Sholto Douglas and the others may have harboured towards the Polish Air Force in the desperate summer of 1940 were substantially mollified by events come the winter. All of the Polish crews proved themselves worthy of allied status ten times over during the Battle of Britain, and though little criticisms remained – such as their tendency to monopolise the radios during combat flying – by 1941 all of the serious doubts had been swept away. Indeed, even in the summer, attitudes had been changing noticeably. At first Medhurst had insisted that the ‘French’ and ‘British’ Poles were not to be mixed in squadrons if at all possible, mainly to protect the latter from defeatist influences, but Gp Capt Leslie Hollinghurst, the Deputy Director of Organisation, recorded that: ‘as a result of closer acquaintance with the “new” Poles, they [Air Intelligence] have decided that they are not such bad fellows after all and have withdrawn their objection’. This view was reinforced during the autumn of 1940 when most of the senior RAF commanders and politicians from both countries conducted high-profile visits to the Polish stations, presenting medals, giving speeches, and generally talking up a relationship which was settling into a satisfactory condition.

Although the alliance was stabilising in military terms, the Poles still had two political issues which were not fully resolved from their point of view. The first was British assistance in establishing recruitment schemes abroad so that their very healthy core stock of air personnel would not be diminished by combat losses and unavoidable demobilisation due to age or disability. The second was the perpetual quest for independent status. The question of recruitment will be dealt with in Chapter Three, primarily because the Polish experience was broadly in line with that of the Czechoslovaks in that both groups suffered when they tried to export their enthusiasm to a largely disinterested North America. But, disappointing though these efforts ultimately were, the all-important need for prestige drove both of them into head-on confrontations with the British over the question of independence. It was a battle which the Poles eventually won, and one which the Czechs lost with great indignity.

Even by late 1940, the British were still reluctant to discontinue the practice of duplicating middle- and high-ranking posts within all the allied air forces (a not unreasonable decision considering the language difficulties and lack of a thorough knowledge of RAF practice on behalf of the allies), but this did not slow the political momentum behind Polish desires to achieve fully independent status. Success in this quest would be measured in various ways: (1) an agreement between the two nations that would formally enshrine the bilateral aspects of the alliance; (2) the creation of a separate Polish Air Force Inspectorate that would have full powers in the field of promotion, selection, training and administration; (3) equal, or at least substantial, representation at strategic level. This last point should not be confused with the creation of an independent stratum of command regarding missions and routine flying, for the Poles, as junior allies, were always prepared to follow the British lead when it came to active operations. Rather, as with their earlier requests for a seat on the Supreme War Council, the Poles felt entitled to a say in what course the war took, especially regarding operations or plans which affected the home territory. It was to be an unfulfilled objective, partly for political reasons on behalf of the British, many of which surfaced in the last years of the conflict, and partly because with the entry of the USA into the war after Pearl Harbor, that power automatically put many of the lesser groups into the shade, assuming an ever-greater dominance in strategic affairs which even Churchill had difficulty in resisting at times.

In 1940, however, no such obstacles existed, and it fell to the Polish High Command and political representatives to make the best possible case for the creation of independent armed forces. Indeed, all of the European allied powers felt entitled to independence in one form or another, and more often than not the air contingents were the focal point of their efforts. For its part, the War Office had no great objections to forming Army units which reflected the national character of each ally, but we should bear in mind that in 1940 there was no land war and it was relatively easy to create free-standing organisations which could, if need be, be smoothly integrated with the home Army. That was not the case in the air. Given the crises of that summer, and the obvious implications that air power would henceforth be a major strategic tool, the RAF felt wholly justified in its insistence that it retained as much control as possible over the allied groups. Equally, each allied government felt to a greater or lesser degree that the air units stood as elite representatives of their own national freedom and their determination to resist the invader, therefore the potential for conflict was vast.

As we have seen, the agreement to split the Polish air personnel between Britain and France was a separate issue dealt with in October 1939. However, the Polish terms of service were another matter, and the British side-stepped any unnecessary complications by simply rewording the Anglo-Polish naval agreement which legally formalised the collaboration at sea. This was not enough for the Poles, for in essence it meant that they were seen and described as an associated power simply assisting the British government with its war against Germany, when what they wanted, quite reasonably, was a level of international standing much higher than that. Even before the attack on France, Sikorski had been campaigning for greater recognition for the Polish presence to be embodied in the military agreements. He tried first with Chamberlain – meeting with little success – and then Churchill, who demonstrated that although the spirit was willing, the influence was weak. As far as Sikorski was concerned, Polish sovereignty rested largely upon the process of officer promotion and selection – a power which the British intended to reserve for themselves. As things stood in May 1940, the RAF had first and last say over who would receive commissions in the Polish section of the RAFVR – something which Sikorski strongly rejected. The British argument rested upon the constitutional point that only the King, ‘as advised by the Air Council, can promote officers belonging to that force’. Furious with this ill-judged and almost feudal declaration, Sikorski complained directly to Churchill, who put pressure on the Foreign Office to intervene. Within days the Air Ministry had relented, but not entirely, for the subsequent re-draft of the agreement merely permitted promotion to be considered by a joint board of Polish and British representatives, with the Poles having the final approval.

The air war over Britain that summer slightly delayed the negotiations leading towards the finished document, but by August all the outstanding issues had been resolved, or at least were in a state of compromise. The Poles had initially pushed for Polish military law to be applied in all cases, but this was refused by the Air Ministry with the not unsound argument that it would be unworkable where both nationalities were serving in the same squadron or on the same station. The compromise here was to insist that RAF law would apply at all times when a Polish individual was serving with the RAF in any capacity, and although in theory he would be subject to Polish military law, when the terms of Polish military law and Royal Air Force law differed, the latter would prevail. Furthermore, all disciplinary courts would consist of an equal number of British and Polish officers as judges, but with a British officer serving as president of the court and holding the casting vote. On the question of promotion, it was decided that all recommendations were to be generated by unit commanders then forwarded to the Polish High Command by the RAF for the former’s approval, but only if the RAF agreed with the recommendation in the first place. As a nod to Polish sovereignty, however, all men were permitted to take an oath of allegiance to the Polish Republic, and the agreement provided for the creation of an independent Polish Inspectorate theoretically responsible for all matters relating to the force, though in practice it represented the interface between the two air ministries, the primary channel of communication through which the RAF could monitor the condition of the Polish Air Force and, perhaps more importantly, the means by which the RAF could make its wishes known. But the Poles, and to some extent the British too, had taken for granted the creation of a formal Inspectorate as early as March 1940. In any case, it served both parties to have such a body in place: from the Polish side, it enabled them to monitor and maintain the development of the air force in exile, and from the British viewpoint, it relieved them of the burdensome task of day-to-day administration, allowing them to concentrate on the major issues of policy and deployment.

The first incumbent was Gen W.J. Kalkus, the existing head of the Inspectorate since September 1939, but when the transfers to Eastchurch were well under way, Polish requests to have him sent to Britain were at first rebuffed. The Directorate of Organisation was clearly displeased with the prospect of a senior commander viewing the shambles at Eastchurch, minuting Porri in March 1940, ‘[His visit] would not serve any useful purpose because any shortcomings that he might discover would certainly be well known to us’ – the implication being that the RAF could not stand before him covered in shame when as far as they were concerned they were only doing what was expected of them.

The attitudes changed when Davidson, the station commander at Eastchurch, supported the proposal and enlisted the help of the British Attaché in Paris. The latter described Kalkus as a man ‘with very pleasant manners’, the only serious drawback being that he spoke no English or French. Davidson concurred with this view, though he warned that the proposed Inspectorate might prove to be larger than imagined because the Poles had a few surplus officers which they wished to employ. However, the argument was clinched when the attaché added: ‘I should say that he is not a very strong man, and this impression is borne out by his nickname among his own people which is “the sheep in lion’s clothing”.’

This was more than enough to sway even the devout sceptics like Boyle who minuted all departments that Kalkus was clearly the man for the job, and that the creation of an Inspectorate within the RAFVR would ‘enhance the levels of control’ over the units in Britain. At a meeting in May, it was decided that Kalkus would be given the immediate rank of Air Commodore and have a staff of twelve, though there was still some foot-dragging over the powers he would be endowed with, and whether this would lead to a form of de facto independence by the back door. Davidson argued that the Inspectorate must be formed with all possible speed because the workload placed upon him was at times intolerable, and that the senior Polish officer, Capt Stachon, was forced to refer to his superiors in Paris before even the smallest decision could be taken. Then, in late May, AVM Paul Maltby, the AOC No. 24 (Training) Group, which shouldered most of the responsibility for the training programme at Eastchurch, wrote directly to the Air Council and complained about the expectations placed upon Davidson at Eastchurch:

[He] is becoming far too involved with all matters concerning the various Polish contingents in this country, no matter where they are stationed [and] he is being consulted not only by various branches of the Air Ministry and the Polish authorities, but even by politicians. I submit that it is quite beyond his capacity to command his station . . . if he is expected to act as an advisor on widespread policy matters at the same time.’

He closed by urging the creation of ‘some central authority’ at once, and henceforth all doubts were cast aside and Kalkus was formally installed at the beginning of June. If anything, this little episode demonstrates yet again that the British were totally unprepared for dealing with the Poles in any capacity, but also that any proposals for improving the situation had first to run the gauntlet of suspicion that by passing greater autonomy to the Polish High Command, the British would lose more of what little control they had to begin with.

The first Anglo-Polish Military Agreement was signed on 5 August 1940, with appropriate appendices covering the respective air, sea and land forces. Apart from defining the powers of the Polish Inspectorate, it also officially removed the entire contingent from the RAFVR and placed them under their own national banner. It went some way towards fulfilling Polish aspirations, but it had one crucial omission: it did not include any promise by the British to restore the territory of Poland once victory had been assured – something which did not pass unnoticed by the Poles. The preamble only committed the two governments ‘to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion’, a vague and slippery objective which meant that the British could avoid indelicate matters of territory and frontiers at the war’s end.

Furthermore, the Poles were not the only group whose postwar ambitions were kept at a distance by the British: the Czechoslovaks too were to discover that their new friends were inclined to shuffle and mumble when the question of ‘afterwards’ was raised, and it was even more galling to both these nations when the agreements with the other allied countries of Western Europe proudly proclaimed restoration and deliverance. This is one reason why the British preferred all of the national agreements to be kept secret between the contracting parties, and why they were never elevated to state treaties, for this would have meant parliamentary ratification, and therefore publicity. In short, although the various allied military agreements were, in the main, little more than carbon copies of each other, the essential differences lay in the amount of power each group had over its own forces, and what policies the British government intended to follow once the war had been won. Nevertheless, and perhaps wisely, the Poles did not seek further conflict over this matter, for had they done so they would have faced a wall of opposition from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet. But in 1940, looking around at the grim state of the war, this was a minor point of contention compared to the very real business of getting on with the fighting.

In the years that followed, the Polish Air Force superbly demonstrated that getting on with the fighting was something it could do without prompting from the French, the British, or anyone else. By mid-1941, most of the doubts and suspicions of darker days had been dispelled by the sheer tenacity and determination of these men in exile, to the point where the RAF started to throw open hitherto shuttered doors to selected members of the Polish High Command. This still did not extend to what might be termed ‘secret information’ or strategic briefings, but when Sikorski requested that certain of his officers might serve for a time in Command or Group Headquarters so they might learn more about the central organisation of the RAF, both the DAFL and Portal (then the CAS) signalled their wholehearted concurrence. Polish officers were gradually seconded to British squadrons, and like senior officers in other allied forces, eventually placed in command of some of them.

The social dimension was also a positive one for the Poles. Zamoyski spends considerable time describing how attractive the Poles were to British women in the first half of the war, and there can be little doubt that the Polish airman or officer was very much an exotic creature until the arrival of the Americans in large numbers. But what he lacked in spending power, the Pole amply made up for in charm, ‘traditional’ values and sheer symbolism, for he represented merely by his existence in British uniform all that was mythically wonderful about Britain’s crusade against tyranny. The Czechoslovaks also enjoyed this backwash of sympathy, though perhaps their social acceptance was promoted by a pinch of guilt over the Munich affair. Men from both groups made friends easily in Britain; several hundred married British women. For a while, too, the Pole was a social accessory in the upper reaches of the British class system. The huge amount of radio and newspaper publicity generated by their successes in the air made a token Polish officer de rigueur at any cocktail party worth the name, and although things were to turn very sour indeed for the Poles by the war’s end, the eighteen months between the Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor proved to be a happy hunting season for all the Slavs.

If the medals, the public acclaim and the sexual conquests were indicative of the bright side of the Polish exile, there were darker aspects which exercised the diplomatic skills of the politicians. The application of Polish military discipline raised some eyebrows in the service departments and Whitehall, for although the British were the final arbiters in matters of gross infringement, minor issues were dealt with at a local level and occasionally drew unfavourable comments regarding harsh treatment meted out to men who had for whatever reason managed to transgress the Polish codes of honour and service.

Part of the cause was the defeat of Poland itself, which led to an urgent need to rebuild and restore national pride through the service arms in exile. This led some Polish officers to interpret indolence, dissent or simply fatigue as evidence of cowardice or disloyalty, and there were examples of men being humiliated or punished for offences which would have attracted lesser reprimands in the British forces. The Air Ministry decided that this was a hangover from the pre-war days, declaring some of the older Polish officers to be ‘too rigid and inflexible in outlook’. In the early part of the war, the RAF applied pressure to the Polish High Command to transfer or reassign officers whose very presence gave rise to disciplinary problems in Polish squadrons, and they also adduced this conflict between ideals and codes of practice to explain much of the tension which had plagued the exiles in the Eastchurch era. Even as late as Christmas 1940, the British were still having difficulties integrating RAF officers into some Polish squadrons within the system of dual command, and it was not until the summer of 1941 that most of the problems had been resolved. By that time, the RAF had successfully collaborated with the Polish High Command to reduce or remove the small cohort of career officers whose enthusiasm for order had threatened the stability of some Polish squadrons.

The Polish air crews were unique among the European allies in exile because they alone were denied a triumphant return home at the end of the war. After nearly six years of bitter and intense fighting, their reward was to fall into the political abyss created by the sudden upsurge in tension between East and West, and as the major powers positioned themselves ready for a new confrontation, so the Poles were swept along virtually powerless to direct events.

They themselves were aware of what was happening – or likely to happen – as the war in Europe ended. A Polish forces magazine, Robotnik, published several letters from men who complained of anti-repatriation propaganda being spread by some officers. These scare tactics, generally consisting of blood-curdling warnings of deportation or internment by the communists, were interpreted by the Foreign Office as useful indications of the growing political divisions within the Polish forces, attitudes which had been slowly developing since January 1944, when in a meeting of the Post-War Reconstruction Committee, at which a Polish representative was present, it became apparent that Poland would inevitably be occupied by Soviet forces after the defeat of Germany. ‘This had, not unnaturally, created a considerable commotion in Polish circles,’ ran a Foreign Office minute. ‘We had better deal with this dangerous rumour immediately. Our explanation would be that the Moscow Conference had a document before them – not subsequently agreed to – concerning the general administration of the liberated territories.’

The conference to which this rather unsettled note referred was the meeting of foreign ministers in the Soviet capital between 18 October and 30 October 1943. Their brief was to set the agenda for the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Tehran at the end of November, and again the Polish government-in-exile tried in vain to have a voice. Polish–Soviet relations at this time were sour indeed. Stalin had used Polish outrage at the discovery of the massacre at Katyn to break off all diplomatic relations with the London group in April 1943, and by the end of that year the arrival of the Red Army in Polish territory was imminent. The Poles attempted to persuade Churchill to take up their case with Stalin, but the former was outflanked and isolated at Tehran by the other two leaders, and the latter had nothing to lose by ignoring the desires of the Polish government in London. In the event, the Tehran Conference decided that Poland would be shifted westwards on the map, with Stalin gaining enormous territories in the east, and the Poles being compensated by German land in the west. At Tehran, the carve-up of Poland had begun in earnest; in fact, the eventual dismemberment of all of Eastern Europe was set in motion there. When the news reached London, the Polish government redoubled its efforts to have the Western allies stand firm, but it was always going to be a fruitless exercise. The overwhelming need to have Stalin continue the war in the east and not make a separate peace with Hitler was enough incentive for Britain and America to petition him with little more than vague hopes for a sunny Polish future; anything concrete would have been waved aside. Furthermore, Churchill’s scheme for a second front rooted in a Balkan invasion was also scuppered at Tehran. Such an expedition might have brought some relief to Poland, or at least the troops of Western allies on her soil, but it was never to be. On the night of 3 January 1944, Russian troops crossed the Polish frontier, and there they were to remain for a long time.

Rumours of the talks in Moscow and Tehran gradually filtered down to the Polish forces in exile, and the de facto occupation of Poland by the Red Army made the rumours metamorphose into grim expectancy. However, this did not lead – as one might have expected – to a sudden downturn in morale. On the contrary, the commitment to the defeat of Germany and an honourable peace remained as high as ever in the Polish forces. But, like the Czechoslovaks, the pervasive effect of the Soviet advance made itself felt in political terms. The Polish government’s efforts to play down the dark reality of events at home by continually pointing to the fact that nothing had been firmly settled and that a satisfactory deal with Stalin was still possible led men to believe that victory might still mean freedom. That attitude was not to last long, however, because the true horror for the Polish people erupted on 1 August with the Warsaw uprising. Throughout the two months of struggle, the powerlessness of the Western allies to be of any assistance was forlornly monitored by the Polish forces in Britain and Europe, and although it is doubtful that the West could have provided any substantial military aid, Stalin’s refusal to allow Western planes to use Soviet airfields for supply drops merely confirmed in the minds of many thousands of Poles that they had been sold out in the West, leaving their beleaguered homeland to be inexorably drawn into the Soviet orbit.

The Warsaw uprising and its subsequent failure dealt a shattering blow to Polish morale. Worse still, other exiles alongside whom they had fought for five years were gleefully anticipating their own return home. August 1944 had seen Gen de Gaulle, dodging Vichy snipers, marching in triumph through Paris; the battle for Belgium, though still with all too much life left in it, was going to be won sooner or later; and also in August, the Free Dutch Army’s Princess Irene Brigade began the liberation of the Netherlands, and it was only the allied failure at Arnhem which greatly stifled the process. Nevertheless, the war was clearly being won; Germans were on the run all over Europe, and yet, as one Polish pilot said: ‘As we sat around the radio, we died a little during each of those 63 days of the rising.’ The slaughter and hideous reprisals meted out by the Germans left Warsaw as little more than an open wound, and it was all the more unbearable with so much joy all around.

It was this pain and uncertainty about what the future held which triggered the factious elements within the Polish forces. As the last full year of the war came to a close, the Chiefs of Staff report for the final quarter of 1944 merely recorded the continuation of ‘restlessness’ in the Polish Air Force, but added: ‘It has not weakened either spirit or discipline in the squadrons.’ This was true enough, but there were deeper elements at work in the minds of men who had given so much for what appeared to be so little. For it seemed to many that the cause had been lost, and that their allies had given their consent to Poland being swallowed by a hostile power. Then the final blow to Polish hearts was cruelly delivered – not by Britain, America or even Stalin – but by those very ordinary people who had once been their unreserved champions: the British public.

Wessex and her first Christian kings

Two Saxon warriors – realistic portrayal of the sort of warrior farmers who entered the former Roman province of Britannia in numbers, in the fifth century AD.

“Saxon warriors, southern England, 6th century CE”, Angus McBride

It is obvious that the sequence pagan England–Augustine of Canterbury–Christian England is hardly an approximation to the reality of seventh-century history, even to the events as we know them. But it is easy to forget how unsteady the early decades were. In Kent Queen Bertha had been celebrating mass for the best part of a generation in her chapel at court before her husband followed suit; and when he died their son relapsed to paganism for a time. A similar relapse befell Essex on the death of its king Sæberht, at about the same time. To judge from the grave furniture at Sutton Hoo, Rædwald of East Anglia was planning to keep his options open at his death in the 620s and the Christian cause was to suffer a serious setback in the Northumbrian kingdoms within its first ten years.

But this was the world of the warrior code and of ring-giving lords: for the fighting men on all sides, Christian or pagan, British or Saxon, the struggle was as important as the outcome. The year that Oswald of Northumbria stood sponsor at his baptism, Cynegils of Wessex led a victorious campaign into the recently Christian kingdom of Essex (according to Bede, the East Saxons had relapsed into paganism and this was their punishment).

When Cynegils died in 643, Wessex once again found itself under pagan rule as his son Cenwalh flirted briefly in alliance with Penda of Mercia, taking the pagan king’s sister as his queen and then, for reasons best known to himself, separating from the queen; her furious brother drove him from his throne. Cenwalh found exile with the East Angles where he reconverted to Christianity. When he recovered Wessex in 648 he founded the minster of St Peter’s, Winchester, and, with the installation of the Frankish churchman Agilbert, seemed to have secured the new faith in Wessex.

Cenwalh (d. 672) continued to ply the royal trade of war leader. Success in the 650s against the Christian British/Welsh near Bradford on Avon and the annexation of areas of what is now Wiltshire and Somerset, was followed (661) by humiliation at the hands of Mercia as its new, now Christian, king drove a triumphant campaign south to occupy the Isle of Wight. The West Saxon dynast seemed in eclipse. His widow Seaxburgha, the only queen regnant of the Anglo-Saxon period, held the centre until her own death in the early 670s. In the next decade the throne was seized by a pagan warrior claiming descent from the royal house, despite his apparently Celtic name of Cædwalla. In three ruthless years (685–8) he conquered the kingdoms of Kent, where he installed his brother Mull, later burnt alive in a general uprising, and Sussex, recently converted by the exiled bishop Wilfrid of York. He, it seems directed Cædwalla to Christianity; he certainly received large estates in the Isle of Wight, which the king also conquered. Cædwalla’s origins are obscure, his military success indisputable. It guaranteed him the spoils of war and the kind of fame as lord and ring-giver that in turn guaranteed followers. Like Guthlac, Cædwalla adopted the life of faith. He had lived as a pagan warlord but his return to the new religion confirmed it in Wessex beyond further question. In 688 he abdicated the throne he had seized and went, a pilgrim, to Rome; one of the first of the many English kings to do this. There he accepted baptism and, ten days later, died.

Weapons – the honoured tools of war

Thanks to the archaeologist, the early medieval king-warlord and his war band of companions or gesiths stand before us as men of extreme wealth and extravagant display; ostentatious on the battlefield and in the pomp of death. The largest pieces of equipment, helmet and shield, are at the same time the most majestic emblems. (Though even here makers might attempt to cut corners. King Æthelstan’s Grately code (c. 930) warned shield-makers not to use sheepskin, in place of true leather.) Made of wood and covered with tan-toughened leather, the heavy round shield, up to three feet (91 cm) in diameter, mounted with a central boss to deflect blows or be used as a bludgeon at need, could be a weapon of offence as well as defence. It was also a platform for display. Relief ornaments, in copper with applied silver-sheet embellishments, are exquisitely worked in animal forms – birds of prey, for example, or reptilian bodies – reminiscent in shape of the creatures that inhabit the scrolls and tendrils of the monks’ illuminated manuscripts, and mounted seemingly at random for maximum decorative effect, but almost certainly in arrangements that conveyed symbolic meanings to the initiated.

For the fighting man himself the sword was surely the most valued tool of his trade in practical, but also in almost mystical, terms. The Beowulf poet writes of a sword treasured from the days of the giants, the envy of warriors, that only the hero himself could wield. As in the samurai culture of Japan, such high-status swords might pass through many hands, possibly as a gift from lord to gesith, possibly from father to son, certainly at the highest social level. They might be embellished, sometimes by successive owners, with gold fittings or other rich ornaments.

The sword-smith was highly rated in this warrior world: a craftsman of the highest calibre and respected social status. In the law code of Æthelberht of Kent the killing of the king’s smith commands special compensation. As in many African traditions, the ironworker as such was held to be under divine patronage and, like the Roman god Vulcan, the legendary Weland the Smith of the Anglo-Saxons was lame. But whereas Vulcan was born so, Weland, it was believed, had been crippled deliberately by a king to prevent his escape from the royal smithy.

In the early centuries, the finest swords were produced by ‘pattern welding’. The process, as depicted by Kevin Leahy, begins by twisting strips of iron of the required length and then hammering them into flat ribbons. Four such ‘ribbons’ are next fire-welded onto an iron core and hammered out so that the twist marks, flattened into oblique lines, may create a chevron or ‘herringbone’ pattern. A strip of steel is next welded to either side of the core unit to provide the cutting edges. These are now ground and the whole polished to bring out the chevron effect – the blade’s badge of fighting quality and inherent value. By the mid-ninth century, though, furnace improvements and refinements of the smith’s technique made possible the production of quality blades without the need for pattern welding.

Weapons of all kinds, such as spears, light throwing axes or short single-edged dagger-swords (seaxes), which according to one tradition gave the Saxons their name, and, less frequently, swords, are excavated as grave goods and it seems reasonable to assume that the bones with which they are found are those of a warrior whose social status and fighting specialisms can be deduced from their presence. But, by an extensive analysis of some 1,660 male burials in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, concentrating on sword-bearers, Heinrich Härke of Reading University concluded that this does not necessarily follow. For example, some ‘weapon burials’ were those of children aged as young as twelve months, and some of men too severely disabled ever to have seen action. Then there were skeletons presenting combat wounds but not accompanied by weapons of any kind.

Such facts and others have long persuaded scholars that weapon burials had a largely symbolic meaning. But Dr Härke has proposed a further hypothesis. Analysis shows that those adult males buried with weapons tended to be up to two inches taller than those without – more or less the height difference revealed, by other studies, as that between the Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British populations. Härke has argued that the [taller] immigrant Germanic [community] ‘used weapons in the burial rite . . . perhaps . . . to demonstrate that they were ruling [the land] by force; a material culture version of the conquest myth’.16 But it could be that these opulent inhumations, which would have had to be highly public events to make such an aggressive demonstration, were, rather, exclusive family memorials to kinship solidarity. The ceremony attending the baby boy buried with the family sword ‘that any warrior would envy and only a hero could wield in battle’ would, surely, have been one of howling private grief, not of ethnic triumphalism.

Eighth-century Wessex: the first West Saxon law code and the first shires

It was the view of Bishop Stubbs, the great nineteenth-century scholar of medieval studies in England, that when the House of Commons appears it is largely as an assembly of representatives of other, older assemblies. (He was writing at a time when the House of Commons was of some consequence.) He traced this in part back to the shire courts of Anglo-Saxon England. Nearly all were in place by the year 1000 and some, as Professor Campbell has pointed out, were much older: ‘At least three were former kingdoms. Such a shire as Hampshire is much older, as a unit of government and authority, than is France.’

The eighth century opened promisingly for the kingdom of Wessex. The name was coming into general use for the territory stretching from the lands of the Gewisse people, around the upper Thames, southwards to the coastal lordship established by the semi-legendary Cerdic two centuries earlier. It is not clear how or by whom the two regions were united, but the ruling dynasty held to the title of the Cerdingas. With King Ine (688–726) the historic heartland kingdom of the later Anglo-Saxon period secured its own core territories. The men of Kent were forced to pay compensation for the killing of Mull; Surrey was effectively a frontier province (bordering on Essex); while Sussex, it seems, was generally a biddable ally helping Ine in a campaign against the British king Geraint of Dumnonia.

The reign of Ine remains important for his law code, the first by a Wessex king, which survives as an attachment to the code of Alfred and holds the first references to the shire court presided over by a royal agent or scirman (‘shireman’). It seems that the core West Saxon shires of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset, though based on existing administrative subdivisions, may have been established under this king. By a wide margin the Western world’s oldest organs of local government still functioning, the West Saxon shires were already, in the classic English manner, of different type. The first two take their names from royal residences (vills) at [South] Hampton and Wilton. Dorset and Somerset, on the other hand, were named for the local folk, the settlers (sæte), in the vicinity of the forts of Dorchester and Somerton. Ine’s laws are concerned that a malefactor might escape his lord’s control by getting into a neighbouring shire. Apparently ‘crossing the county line’ has been an option for fugitives from justice for well over a millennium.

The shire with its subdivisions, such as the hundreds, was headed by a royal appointee originally in Wessex known as an ‘ealdorman’, though the term in general came to denote an official of higher status; by the year 1000 most of England had been divided under successive rulers into shires, each with its royal official known as the scir gerefa (the ‘reeve’), an administrative officer of the shire (certain Canadian municipalities still have an official known as ‘reeve’). The modern English sheriff has limited, often ceremonial functions. In the US his equivalent, inherited from the colonial period, remains an important local law enforcement officer. Familiar to all aficionados of the Western film, at the time of the western frontier the sheriff was empowered to recruit a ‘posse’ of the county’s citizenry to help him at need. Like the man, the term derives from medieval England, from the (post-Conquest) Latin posse comitatus, the ‘force of the county’. In some US states the posse may still be deployed as a citizen police force, to patrol shopping malls, for instance.

It is also under Ine that the term ‘ealdorman’first appears in West Saxon documents, the first West Saxon coins were minted and the king first began to interest himself in commerce. In fact, it appears that King Ine, whose laws on the regulation and protection of foreign merchants encouraged the commercial development of Wessex, probably stimulated the kingdom’s economy by the carefully planned development of the port of Hamwic, adjacent to the royal vill of Hampton. Population was resettled from the surrounding countryside; gravel and other building materials were shipped on site at the king’s expense; and a new port was ready to join the international Channel–North Sea network of centres, given the generic name of ‘emporium’ (plural ‘emporia’) by historians of the period.

In the 710s Boniface of Crediton, then a monk at Nursling, en route for his mission to Germany, twice went by road to Lundenwic (London) to make the sea crossing from there. As a Wessex man he may have considered himself to be still on home territory. In the early 700s the law code of King Ine mentions the East Saxon Eorcenwold, bishop of London, as ‘our bishop’, which suggests that the West Saxon king considered he had a controlling interest in the place. Twenty years before that, a reference in the Kentish law code refers to the ‘king’s hall’ and the king’s wic gerefa (‘wic reeve’) – presumably the hall within the Roman city area and the reeve based in the wic (or trading area) to watch over the king’s interests in the emporium’s trade. Given its place on the Thames and at the convergence of many frontiers, and its status as an international emporium, we can assume that all adjacent authorities wanted their fingers in the honeypot and that London’s merchant magnates knew how to restrict access.

Boniface had already made his mark when King Ine and his church councillors chose him to head a deputation to Canterbury. Churchmen had been among the advisers, both lay and clerical, the king had consulted when drawing up his legal code, which, among other things, legislated to enforce both infant baptism and the payment of tithes, levies due to the church. During his reign the kingdom, up to that time a single church province, was divided between two new bishoprics, Winchester and Sherborne, where the devout and scholarly Aldhelm, apparently of the royal kin, was installed. In Alfred’s day it was believed that Ine built the first monastery in the vicinity of the numinous site of Glastonbury Tor and he certainly was a patron to the abbey of Malmesbury where Aldhelm, who had long been a student at Theodore’s Canterbury school, was abbot from the 680s. On the western edge of Anglo-Saxon settlement and conquest, the abbey had a sizeable number of Britons among its dependent population. As Della Hooke explains in The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (p. 40)

Although large numbers of Anglo-Saxon immigrants followed the initial raids . . . [or wars, we might say, such as that of Ine and his Sussex ally against Dumnonia] and settled across England . . . the bulk of the population, especially in the west, must surely have remained Romano-British stock.

The original name of the minster of Malmesbury was Maildubhi Urbs the ‘city’ of Maildubh, in Old English Maeldubh’s burh, and tradition holds that it originated around the hermitage of an Irish monk of that name. Irish monks may also have had a presence at Glastonbury. Certainly non-Roman Christianity was strong in the region. About 700 we find Aldhelm, writing to King Geraint of Dumnonia, spelling out the Roman way of calculating the date for Easter and urging that his British clergy adopt it. The approach to the West Country ‘Celtic’ Christians seems to have had some success. Bede claimed that the British already within the West Saxon borders were convinced of the Roman way. Apparently, however, the British across the Severn, the Welsh, refused to eat with ‘the Roman party’ and imposed a penance of forty days on priests who had anything at all to do with the Romans.

One of the pillars of Anglo-Saxon spirituality in Wessex was to be the new foundation at Wimborne, inaugurated with King Ine’s sister Cuthburg as its first abbess. Married for a time to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685–705) and later a nun at Barking in Essex, she lived a career typical of the kind of networking that was possible for women between the kingdoms of the Heptarchy. Dynastic rivalry was also part of the royal scene and, though Ine fended off his rivals, such family feuding would return sporadically to disrupt later reigns. Like his predecessor, Ine abdicated to make the pilgrimage to Rome, where he would die. Men said it was he who founded the Schola Saxonum, the English quarter near St Peter’s. In a reign of some forty years he had maintained the prestige and standing of Wessex and opened up the field of royal government beyond the activities of warlord and conqueror.

The Chronicle tell us that Ine was followed peacefully by a kinsman who ruled from 726 to 740. A family member named Cuthred, in turn, succeeded him. There is evidently drama behind the brief entries for these decades. We learn that in 733 Æthelbald, king of Mercia, captured the West Saxon royal vill of Somerton and that in this year the sun looked like ‘a black shield’. Seven years later, Cuthred took the war to Æthelbald. Three years after this the two men were allies against the Welsh. For a time Cuthred was endangered by domestic rivals and no doubt he faced other threats not recorded in the Chronicle’s terse chronology. In fact, between the seventh and the ninth centuries, the rule in Wessex rarely seems to have passed from father to son; perhaps the succession should be rather understood as an almost institutionalized pattern of challenge and counter-challenge among families of the establishment who laid claim to descent from Cerdic. In the year 752 Cuthred went against Æthelbald once more and this time ‘put him to flight’. Four years later, Cuthred died.

There followed twelve months of conspiracy and murder among the ruling establishment, in which the new King Sigeberht was driven from his throne by his successor Cynewulf. Forced to flee, an outlaw, into the forest of the Weald, he was assassinated by a herdsman – on Cynewulf’s orders, it was supposed. The next thirty years belong to Cynewulf who, we are told by the Chronicle, could trace his paternal ancestry in direct line back to Cerdic, and who fought many ‘great battles’ against the Britons. For all that, one of the longer, and it would seem more successful, reigns in English history receives little attention from the Chronicle bar the mention that it ended with the king’s murder by Cyneheard, the brother of Sigeberht, whose own death Cynewulf too had contrived some thirty years previously. Cyneheard too was killed and the succession was secured by Beohrtric, another direct descendant of Cerdic. He may well have owed his throne to Offa of Mercia; he married his daughter. Beohrtric was opposed by Ecgberht, connected with the West Saxon and Kentish royal lines, and grandfather ‘to be’ of Alfred the Great. Although Wessex won a momentary independence, Ecgberht was driven from ‘the land of the English’ i.e. England by Beohrtric who was assisted by Offa, and Ecghberht was forced to live at the court of Charles the Great, king of the Franks, for several years.

No doubt the overbearing Mercian looked upon Wessex as at best a client kingdom, at worst a subject province. According to King Alfred, who recounted the tradition to his biographer, Asser, many years later, Eadburh’s malevolent period as royal consort explained why the wife of a West Saxon king was never consecrated queen. A true daughter of her father, she ruled the court circle by tyranny and intrigue, but had to flee the country when a plot misfired and she almost poisoned her husband. Whether any of this was true (was she following instructions?) or whether we are dealing here with a simple case of misogynistic gossip, the kings of Wessex did not, after her time, honour their wives with the title of queen and held their ceremonial ‘crown wearings’ in solitary state. It was a change from earlier times. In the seventh century the West Saxons had been briefly ruled by a queen regnant and as late as the 740s a king’s wife was witnessing charters as ‘regina’ (‘queen’).

Beohrtric’s reign (786–802) witnessed an event of terrible omen for the English. ‘In these days’, records the Chronicle, ‘came the first three ships of Northmen’ – it seems they may have been from the region around Hardanger Fjord in western Norway. One report has them landing at Portland. The king’s gerefa rode out to meet them because he did not know what they were, although, presumably they were not traders, since otherwise they would have been heading for Hamwic. Maybe they had steered a wrong course. It was the reeve’s duty to have newcomers report themselves to the king’s town. They killed him.

It was a portent of things to come. Ecgberht, the next king of Wessex (802–39), who was king of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex from 825, and was awarded the title of ‘bretwalda’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as eighth in line of the wielders of the imperium named by Bede, would spend the last years of his reign combating recurring incursions of such ‘northmen’ or ‘Vikings’