All posts by Footsoldier

About Footsoldier

Twenty years a foot soldier in Her Majesty's army these are my my professional and sometimes idiosyncratic musings. I have served at every level from platoon to corps in what has been a varied, undistinguished and immensely rewarding career.

Of the commissioned divide and a plea for more civilians.

WHEN the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East
‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,
An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased
Ere ‘e’s fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

The Young British Soldier

Rudyard Kipling

A recent conversation on twitter over rank and status got me thinking.  The debate had been sparked by the post on the Wavell Room by Nicholas Drummond (@nicholadrummond) about flattening rank structures.

The actual question that I was posed by @AlanIvinghoe was “perhaps  the commissioned/non-commissioned officer divide has had its day?” This lead me to think about status, form and function.  Why do we do what we do the way we do it? What sets us apart in what we do?

Much of the form of the military, derives from our function.  The function of the military differs from all other civilian professions, in that the military have unlimited liability.  As soldiers we accept that we put our lives on the line as part of our routine operational duties; we expect to take casualties on operations.

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

In order to carry out our duties effectively we fall under military discipline, reflected in the Army Act (or Service equivalents).  Within this legislation responsibilities of and to the chain of command are stated and this is reflected in the Commissioning Scroll that most officers receive.

“And we do hereby Command them to Obey you as their superior Officer, and you to observe and follow such Orders and Directions as from time to time you shall receive from Us, or any your superior Officer, according to the Rules and Discipline of War” 

The difference between commissioned and non-commissioned ranks therefore, lies in the duties and responsibilities, it reflects their function in war and is reflected in legislation. Could this change? It is conceivable that officers in command receive letters of appointment (or commissions) specific to that command which would then afford them the same rights and responsibilities but I do not see how this would improve matters.  A broader issue for more fruitful consideration is how within the armed forces (and the Army in particular) we can de-segregate rank and status from appointment and recognised expertise.  If we managed this, then it would be much more the case that rank would not be seen as equaling expertise and I think we would be a more agile organisation as a result; it would also empower our non-commissioned expertise to a far broader extent than is currently the case.

There is a perception that our current personnel structures are not optimal.  This was the genesis of the Wavell Room articles and has also been reflected by Sir Humphrey on his 6th August blog post.  Much ink and angst has been expended on how we need to change structures and standards, in order to bring more expertise and agility into the military.  Do we really have to? Why don’t we keep this expertise in the civilian realm?  Do we expect or need these specialists to pick up a rifle and engage in close combat? Do we expect them to hold unlimited liability?  The US Army has the Army Civilian Corps. These are civilians who are in many cases deployable under orders. They take the oath, they have a creed.  I have deployed alongside them in every theatre I have operated alongside my US colleagues. Some have volunteered to go (the same system our MOD civil servants operate under), but some were ordered too.

“I am an Army civilian – a member of the Army team.
I am dedicated to our Army, our Soldiers and civilians.
I will always support the mission.
I provide stability and continuity during war and peace.
I support and defend the Constitution of the United States and consider it an honor to serve our nation and our Army.
I live the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
I am an Army civilian.”

It seems to me that rather than focusing on how to bend the boundaries of what it means to be military, we could productively look at developing a status of personnel for operating in the gray zone. Neither all soldier nor quite all civilian, but hybrid, under orders but not expected to hold unlimited liability. If we are not employing these people against the contingency of picking up a rifle and engaging in ‘dash, down, crawl, observe, sights, Fire!’ then why we should we treat them as though we are? This category would also usefully enable us to easier fill the SO2 and SO1 pinchpoints that Sir Humphrey highlighted.

Perhaps the future isn’t green, but pinstriped…

 

 

Postscript:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

Who Fights the Fires?

Copyright: Mark Rightmire Orange County Register/Getty Images

I have been watching the wildfires in Europe and in the USA with interest. The resources devoted to these firefighting efforts are impressive and in both Europe and the USA the efforts have been multinational. Here in the UK the military has also been involved relatively recently in firefighting at Saddleworth; it may be a harbinger.

It is likely that climate change will continue to challenge national governments in dealing with natural catastrophes.  The UK now maintains a surface vessel, currently the RFA’s Mounts Bay, in the Caribbean during hurricane season just for any such Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Relief (HADR) contingencies.

Copyright: Noah Berger AP

Could and should the UK military do more?

The UK military could certainly so more. The assets involved in the wildfire efforts in California involve trained and organised manpower (and the National Guard routinely activates, trains and deploys for firefighting tasks) and the use of air assets to provide both direct support to firefighting and logistical support (the US Forest Service has an agreement with Alsaka for seven military C-130s) . All of these types of assets the UK military could provide, and air assets in particular can respond quickly.

The UK military are at the moment the only organisation the UK possesses that has the capacity to deploy at reach and conduct these sort of tasks. Although specialist expertise is limited within the military, the UK does not possess deployable civil defence (Fire and Ambulance) capacity at mass, unless risk is accepted against the UK base. In other words, Chief Fire and Ambulance officers are not mandated or resourced to provide capacity for overseas contingencies (much as it is for policing). The UK does not possess any equivalent to the German Technische Hilfswerk (THW).

Should the UK military do more?

Climate change is likely to create instability and instability will in turn create national security issues for the UK.  I am unconvinced that this task is a core military task, but it is unavoidable that the military is already heavily involved in efforts and is likely to see further commitment to this type of operation.  Few may know that NATO already maintains the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC). This is NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism in the Euro-Atlantic area. It is active all year round, operational on a 24/7 basis, and involves NATO’s 29 Allies and all partner countries.  Although for the recent fires in Sweden the following assets were mobilised through the European Civil Protection Mechanism the EADRCC was approached for assistance.

  • Norway: nine helicopters and ground forest fighting units deployed on bilateral basis;
  • Denmark: two ground forest firefighting units;
  • France: two water scooping airplanes, a reconnaissance aircraft and one ground firefighting unit;
  • Italy: two water scooping airplanes;
  • Germany: one ground firefighting unit and five helicopters;
  • Lithuania: one helicopter;
  • Poland: two ground forest firefighting units;
  • Portugal: two water-scooping airplanes;

These are highly illustrative of the type of response likely to be requested in the future.  The UK does not possess either water-scooping planes or helicopters fitted for firefighting operations, but the latter is not insurmountable as it can be conducted with underslung equipment.

The question remains as to whether it should be a core UK military task? Currently the UK Military Task is to support civil emergency organisations in times of crisis.  In the absence of a deployable capability at scale should the UK military become that civil emergency organisation?  I remain unconvinced, but I am convinced that there is a requirement, that it is likely to grow, and that UK defence planners should be more cognisant of the implications, not least in training and equipping appropriately. From a strategic perspective the UK’s ability to deploy such capability in mass and at distance, and with a willingness to do so, is likely to pay dividends.

Insurrection Reading List

‘Freeman’s Farm’ by Don Troiani

Insurrection Reading List

The British Army regards the American Revolutionary War with the same zeal as it regards our most recent escapades in southern Iraq; a campaign that is to be acknowledged grudgingly and preferably consigned to the dustbins of history. We are sore losers. That is a shame as there is a great deal to learn from both campaigns; in fact somewhat perversely there are likely to be more lessons to be learnt from those campaigns that veer between an inconclusive result and an outright defeat than there are from our better known victories.  These lessons are also more likely to be at the operational and strategic level, levels at which the current British reputation is somewhat lacklustre.  This is clearly the case for the American Revolutionary War which is highly pertinent to today.

The American Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 until 1783. It grew from a colonial rebellion to a broad conflict encompassing France, Holland and Spain.  Unlike the common misconception of British defeat being due to incompetent British officers leading the thin red line against plucky Americans unsportingly hiding behind trees (British soldiers adapted very quickly to North American requirements, petite guerre was not new, and British light companies were very good) the reality reveals campaign lessons on:

  • Logistics. Inter-Theatre the British were at the end of a 9 week supply chain from the UK to the US ( and in this in the days before refrigeration).  Intra-theatre the communications/transport system network simply was not as developed as it was in Europe and the ground posed significant challenges. This conflict more clearly than many, highlights the impact of logistics on campaigning.
  • Joint Operations.  We think of the American Revolution in terms of British joint operations, but the entry of the French fleet into the fight was a pivotal point in the war, and Franco/American joint operations in the Yorktown campaign were superb. We lose control of the sea at our peril.
  • Mass matters.  The British never had sufficient combat power to secure terrain and take the offensive. Without the ability to secure the population, Loyalists never felt secure enough to commit to the Crown. With the broadening of the conflict to include France, Spain and Holland, British commitments increased (we had to strip manpower from Theatre to meet greater priorities while the Americans received additional combat power.
  • Alliances matter. It is debatable whether the Continental Army was sufficient in itself to defeat us, it is undeniable that the alliance (America, France, Spain and Holland) did.
  • Peer Power Competition. As we move from a super-power world to a multi-power world there are lessons to be learnt for us about strategy in a multi-polar competitive system.
  • It’s all about the economy, stupid.  Wars are expensive, and we in the military tend not to look at the overall impact of their costs, but politicians (rightly) do. At the strategic level the costs of war weigh heavily.

In looking at this campaign at the operational and strategic levels I found the Ucko and  Marks framework for analysing armed threats particularly instructive.

An Integrated Framework for Analysing Armed Threats

Lastly in thinking of this campaign I was minded very much of General Sir Rupert Smith’s comment from the recent RUSI Land Warfare Conference: “You and your opponent share the objective; legitimacy, populations access to basic resources, imposing the rule of law or not. These are competitive relationships, not adversarial. A race, not a boxing match.

For those who do wish to study the campaign some more, here are my top four picks:

  1. The West Point History of the American Revolution. Probably the best single book you can buy on the American Revolution due to its combination of history, analysis, illustrations and maps. Provides an excellent oversight and grounding for further study. Reviewed here.
  2. With Zeal and Bayonets Only.  A more in depth study of British Army tactics, equipment and performance over the course of the war. The author (in his own words) aims to “show in the course of this work, the King’s troops won the vast majority of their battlefield engagements in America because they tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions…” The work is narrowly focused on the operational and tactical levels and is best read after gaining an understanding of the broader contours of the war. Reviewed here.
  3. A Respectable Army.  The first book I was introduced to when looking at the Revolutionary War and rightly so. It is one of the definitive accounts of the war and of the Continental Army. Reviewed here.
  4. The Men Who Lost America.  No one likes a loser, as is clearly shown by how history has treated those in charge of British efforts during the war.  As we consider our recent campaigns and some dubious decisions closer to home (I think of the outsourcing of recruiting and housing in particular) it is worth considering that we rarely select idiots as generals, now or ever (there are a few honourable exceptions). This book provides a good look at British higher command during the Revolutionary War, and should make one consider the linkages between strategy and operations. Reviewed here.

The RUSI LWC: Of Things Said and Not Said

Of three things said, and one not said.

Steiner’s not coming…

Brexit where art thou? In the most famous scene from ‘Downfall‘, Hitler is informed of the failure of Steiner to launch his counterstroke against the Russians advancing on Berlin. There is a pregnant pause at the beginning of the scene as Hitler, briefed on the Russian breakthroughs counters with “Steiner’s assault will bring it under control”, except Steiner has no manpower to launch the assault and everyone knows this except Hitler. The RUSI Land Warfare Conference felt somewhat akin to this pregnant pause, except the 250lb gorilla in the room that no-one was talking about was BREXIT and not Army Detachment Steiner. Be that as it may, the Land Warfare Conference was excellent on a number of fronts and these are my headline thoughts from the proceedings.

How Big is Big Enough? To my mind there was a degree of existential angst evident about the size of the British Army. Perhaps we have over focused on manoeuvre warfare as mitigation for our reducing numbers, and forgotten that warfare also has a very necessary attritional component? There is a sense that we recognize that we are now too small to be sustain significant casualties and therefore to take risk at the operational level; if we are too small, how useful are we? How much attrition can the British Army stand? This is important as the tenor of proceedings was of a drift to Great Power competition and existential struggle; of wars of necessity and not choice. There are ways to offset this. Rapid expansion is unlikely as we do not have the industrial base to support rapid expansion, but the points made by Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte and Major Kitty McKendrick about the possibilities use of AI to increase autonomy were very well made. Along with talk of autonomy I enjoyed the sense that we need to broaden the aperture of national security and make it everyone’s business to a greater extant than it is at the moment. Of course ‘national security’ and ‘defence’ are not synonymous, but the broadening of the conceptual framework is welcome.

The Changing Nature? Linked to this broadening sense of who needs to be involved in the national security business, is a sense that maybe the nature of war is going to change. I am not at all convinced of this, but I did feel that despite all the references at the conference to the impact if technology on warfare, we missed a chance to reflect on how technology is changing society. If the nature of warfare is going to change, then it is because the nature of society has changed (which is why I think a change in the nature of war is unlikely), but we have yet to explore fully how changes being wrought by technology and big data on society will in turn reflect on warfare.

Data is the new Oil. I enjoyed Dr Pippa Malmgren on data: “The new oil is data” and “we are now in an era of data power.” Dr Malmgren’s point on the requirement for speedier decision making is long overdue. Quite frankly our planning and decision making processes are no longer fit for purpose, they complicate the complex and increasingly reach decision too late. This is most evident at the operational and strategic levels, but is becoming more apparent at the tactical levels as well. We need to look at how best we adapt staff processes and use AI in order to enable commanders to make effective decisions.

All in all it was an excellent conference, with a notably broader and younger audience. The salient points were captured on Twitter (#RUSILWC) and for the British military the sessions are available through the Defence Gateway.

 

Fiction and Our Fractured Future

 

Good science fiction is often a great window in the future. One of the best science fiction books I have recently read is Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red:First Light‘ which is set in the near future. The book concerns the exploits of a US ‘Linked Combat Squad’ and explores in part the fusion of exo-skeleton technology and advanced data communications on the battlefield.  This technology is already in development and is expected to be fielded in the near future; the book is worth reading from this aspect alone.

Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit
(Photo by Jen Judson/Defense News staff)

However what I found most interesting in the novel (the first of a trilogy) is its look at the impact on society of the diffusion of information through social media, and with increased reliance on Artificial Information, just how far we can rely on what we are told:

“People are dividing into smaller and smaller groups, while the number of widely shared memes – ideas or facts known to just about everyone in a large, related group, like the population of the US – is in steep decline…”

“It’s about perspective. It’s not that what we know is necessarily wrong or incomplete. It’s that what we know and what we believe to be apparent to everyone, isn’t.”

I have previously blogged about the impact of social media on societal cohesion and its attendant impact on military operations; ‘First Light’ illustrates this dynamic beautifully.  Also worth listening to are three podcasts from RAND on what they term “Truth Decay“. For those interested in the information environment in which we operate these are a must listen.

Lastly I have not done ‘First Red’ justice in this blog, it is an excellent read and I enjoyed it immensely – get the book!

 

Things Have Changed

Twitter can be a marvelous thing.

A few weeks ago there was an excellent thread by Mr Leonardo Carella (@leonardocarella), an MPhil candidate at Oxford University, about the crisis of liberal democracy and the role of information technology (sic) as a major source of destabilization.  His thesis is:

  • The internet allows:
    • the organisation of political fringes
    • the fragmentation of the public sphere
    • the globalisation of nationalisms
    • the globalisation of grievances
  • Mainstream parties have lost control of the public agenda;
  • Fringe political interests can now be organised and co-opted in coalitions that were unthinkable in spatially determined cleavage politics;
  • The public sphere is increasingly global:
    • populist forces support and learn from each other
    • political debate is constantly targeted by foreign forces
  • Counter-narratives can develop their own evidence, facts and belief systems shielded from scrutiny
  • Traditional parties’ advantages – territorial presence, local elite networks, penetration of civil society “mezzo” (sic) structures have become undone, making them increasingly unable to act as gatekeepers between local and national level interests.

Mr Carellas then goes on to say that from his perspective, changes in the internet and social media are not ancillary to changes in politics, but fundamental to it; yet not enough is being done to understand the changes and address the issues.  I found Mr Carella’s thesis the most concise explanation of the issues facing us that I have seen for some time.

This changing political landscape holds challenges.  At the strategic level if we take a Clausewitzean view and regard war as the continuation of politics by other means, then the fact that the (national) public sphere has fragmented while issues and identities have globalized presents a significantly different operating environment.   If the Main Effort becomes remains national cohesion and will to fight, followed by coalition cohesion and will to fight, then we may have to focus more on crafting a positive narrative of what we fight for, rather than rely on focusing on a positive narrative of what we fight against.  If we look at the recent campaign against ISIL, crafting a narrative of what we are fighting against was much easier than crafting a narrative to support what we are fighting for.  This problem becomes more acute when we start to inhabit the gray zone of polite men bearing cats, or straightforward inter-state conflict where the issue is national interests and cannot clearly be portrayed in stark moral terms such as the fight against ISIS.

My takeaways from this are:

  • We need to be better at understanding our changing strategic information environment and its impacts on us.  Our politics are changing, our political contextualisation of operations has not necessarily kept pace.
  • As a state we need to be much better at Strategic Communications, recognising the nature of the threat we face.
  •  If we can identify opportunities to exploit (and there are many) in this new environment, we need to accept that our adversaries have already identified them and are exploiting them against us.
  • Twitter can be a marvelous thing!

Lastly, for a good view on the impact of the changing information environment on the use of force, I recommend “War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century” by David Patrikarakos

Reintegration Blues

For most of the last three years I have been deployed on operations, or preparing to deploy on operations. It has been challenging, stressful, a deep learning curve and immensely satisfying; I am a very different person now from what I was in 2015; but adjusting to the ‘now’ as opposed to the ‘was’ comes with its own challenges.

While I have seen a campaign through almost from start to finish, being deployed is life in a bubble. I have been intensely focused on one thing and one thing only, and with that comes a battle rhythm. Meanwhile in the real world life goes on, and goes on to its own rhythm. Coming back is stressful.

Returning from deployment is much like experiencing two of the four main stressors of life (birth, bereavement, marriage and a new job) in life.  After an extended period away I have to readjust to family life. The family has moved on, I have not. We all need to readjust. This can take time, one of the briefs I received on my return highlighted that most domestic issues come to a head three months after return from deployment. Adjusting takes time, and the pressures of not adjusting well take time to rise as well.  A family has a balance of its own, this is a dynamic thing – it takes time to recover its equilibrium.

Recovering equilibrium needs a broader perspective as well.  There’s many things that make a balanced life and that balance is different for everyone. Work, creative pursuits, emotional support, spiritual life and physical fitness all need to be balanced, and on deployment that is difficult. My fitness levels have decreased over the course of deployment, my creative pursuits dwindled to nothing and while I maintained some degree of spiritual balance I now need to regain my equilibrium while at the same time balancing reintegration with the family. My desire for a week in the mountains hiking is neither practical nor desirable from my wife’s perspective and while I would like to start writing again sooner rather than later, quite frankly I feel somewhat frazzled yet. On the plus side my attempts at baking have been met with both approval and an expanding waistline. While I have time now, I do not have limitless time, and while time is a great balancer, time and thought are better together.

In the same way that I deployed to a plan, I have to think through the return. It sounds trite, but goals and timelines are important, as well as measurements. I have to set realistic expectations for me and my family, accept that I am not going to start from where I left last year, but instead will be ahead in some areas, behind in others and different all round. The plan is nothing, but the planning is everything,

So older, wiser and with a good malt in hand, I shall contemplate the future with a certain degree of trepidation, some frustration at opportunities lost and a great deal of anticipation at what the future holds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Temperer and a Campaign Little Known

Operation Temperer

Operation Temperer has returned to barracks for now, but while it was deployed it brought to mind my early days soldiering on Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. The tasks were very much the same – key point defence and overt armed support to the civilian police, and to be frank the equipment did not appear to have changed all that much.

The more recent terrorist attack at London Bridge again brought to mind Operation Banner, but this time in a different guise. There were terrible comparisons to The Troubles made on social media and it highlighted the fact that to my mind Operation Banner remains more misunderstood than known, even by those who served there.

This misunderstanding was most clearly seen early on in the Iraq campaign, in the trite comparisons made between the British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland and its illusory success in Basra, and the then ongoing experiences of the mostly US forces in central Iraq.  The fact is that as a campaign Operation Banner is not well understood, and certainly not by those who would reasonably be expected to know most about it – the British military.

Operation Banner

Few serving soldiers now have any experience of serving on Operation Banner, but even those that do, none will have experience of the 1970s and few will have had experience of the covert struggle. Yet understanding the ebb and flow of the campaign in the 1970s when the hard lessons were learnt, as well as being cognisant of the covert war are essential to understanding the conflict as a whole. Most who are ready with the glib comparisons served in the 1980s onwards when the campaign was relatively mature and growing in sophistication. We remember the Techniques, Tactics and Procedures, but fail to grasp the ‘why’ of the operational approach or even the theatre lay down.

The British Army’s ‘Operation Banner: An Analysis Of Military Operations in Northern Ireland‘ published in 2006 is a remarkable piece of succinctness, capturing almost 37 years in 98 pages. The publication is not designed to be a definitive history of the campaign, not can it be considering its classification that makes it unable to touch on covert operations, and its narrow focus on the military and excluding the role of the police in detail. In fact the definitive history of the campaign has yet to be written.

The British Army’s study is however a good overview of the campaign and has some hidden gems in plain sight (Republican terrorists killed 30% more Republican terrorists than the Army (page 2-12)). This together with the following should be the starting point for those wishing to place the campaign in perspective:

To me it is remarkable how quickly Operation Banner has fallen from view, especially considering the fact the Republican terrorism remains very much active, albeit diminished.  Yesterday’s wars are it seems, largely a matter for the historians, no matter how pertinent they are to the professionals of today.

The Future Shape of Security Concerns?

Venezuela street protests, 2017

Internal Security is somewhat of a modern day anathema to the British Army. When we operate under the guise of Military Aid to the Civil Powers it is generally thought of as being primarily with niche capabilities.

Falls Road, Belfast. 4th July 1970.

It has not always been so and popular memories are short. Few remember much about Operation Banner in Northern Ireland, except the glib view that we mostly learnt the wrong lessons and misapplied even these to Iraq and Afghanistan. Stretching further back, prior to the establishment of a professional police force, the military was heavily involved in supporting the Civil Powers in the maintenance of order.

Anti-capitalism protestors in France.

Much comment has been directed recently at the fragmentation of the public sphere. This is a trend which has been ongoing for some time, but which has been thrown into sharp relief by recent political events at home and overseas. One result of the fragmentation of the public sphere is that political polarisation and possibly extremism is not only more possible, but possibly likely, and with this comes the prospect of increasingly large scale public order issues and other threats to the public space. In any large scale breakdown of public order the issue of the appropriate use of military force becomes an issue, as it did in 2011.

Guarding the British way of life?

When I consider both this fragmentation of the public sphere and what could be perceived as the militarisation of the police, in the absence of of British paramilitary police force such as the French Gendarmerie and CRS, I wonder what is the British perspective of the role of the military in Internal Security? What is the British perspective on the role of police in Internal Security? In many parts of the world the primary role of the police forces is internal security, not policing (law enforcement) as we might recognise from a British or other Western model. As the military looks to become more engaged in upstream capacity building and defence engagement, understanding the British perspective and approach towards the military role in internal security, and towards internal security generally, is going to become more important.

Heavy Metal Reading

The British Army has ebbed and flowed with armour, but generally apart from the halcyon days of BAOR the flow has been towards the lighter end of the spectrum and this continues today.  My first command however was tracked, as was my last, and most of my staff tours has been done to the rumble of tracks. With only three Armoured Infantry Brigades in the British Army now, there are not many remaining who have diesel in their veins to the same extent.

For those who have not experienced close-up armoured warfare the overwhelming first impression is of speed and scale. For unprepared commanders the shock action of armour may verge on fratricidal. This is even before we consider the logisitcal implications of working with an armoured unit (and I well remember the apocryphal mayhem occasioned by a squadron of Royal Scots Dragoon Guards being detached to 3 Commando Brigade on the Al-Faw peninsula in summer 2003). In order to alleviate some of this, here are my recommendations of the the three best books on unit and sub-unit armoured warfare.

Tigers In The Mud‘ by Otto Carius 

Otto Carius served in the German Army throughout World War Two and saw action on both fronts. More than anything else with armour, this book taught me the value of conducting a thorough ground reconnaissance when working with armour.  Working with armour is a matter of thinking big, heavy and fast when looking at the ground.  The principles for use are the same, only the parameters are different. And while no doubt battle tanks will soon become a system of systems, with manned ‘mother, vehicles being supported by unmanned air and ground vehicles, I think that it will be some time yet before the need for a thorough recce of the route, the going and firing positions by the commanders on foot, is replaced by other means.

The Graf interrupted me.  “You’ll also get over this ridiculous ditch without a bridge!” “With all due respect, no, Herr Graf.  I still know this area from the time when the Russians hadn’t yet advanced so far, and they were just getting ready to infiltrate across the Nara.  Back then, of course, I studied the terrain intensely.  Because even if the ditch isn’t an obstacle for infantry for tanks it is…

And then there are the legendary German orders, that tell us a lot about tactical proficiency and auftragstaktik in the Heer;  comparison of their orders with ours is illuminating.

Two tanks will drive into the village at full speed and surprise Ivan.  He must not be allowed to fire a shot.  Lieutenant Nienstedt will bring up the remaining six tanks.  Herr Nienstedt!  You will remain on the reverse slope until I give you further orders.  Let’s just hope that the patron saint of radios isn’t sleeping!  Herr Nienstedt, this is your first operation with us.  Remember one thing more than anything else: as long as you are patient, everything will work.  The first two are Kerscher and me.  Everything else should be obvious.  What will happen later will be determined by the situation as it develops.

Tank Action‘ by David Render

‘Tank Action’ is one of those recent gems of military publishing, and I am looking forward to following it up by reading ‘An Englishman At War‘, the wartime diaries of his commanding officer in the Sherwood Rangers.  ‘Tank Action’ is as much about command as it is about armoured warfare and is excellent at highlighting the close knit nature of armoured vehicle crews where more so than in the infantry, a crew is only as good as it’s weakest member.  The book also clearly highlights in the opening chapters how armoured troops are specialist troops.

Training on Churchill and Valentine tanks, I had only seen a Sherman once in the eighteen months I spent at Bovington and Sandhurst. But most tanks were similar in concept Andy design and my training had taught me the importance of checking the bore alignment of the main armament to the sighting system, prior to commencing operations in any tank.  Misalignment would mean that the gun could not be fired accurately and was likely to be proved fatal in an engagement with a German panzer.  I asked the nonchalant trio squatting round the fire which one of them was the gunner.  A surly-looking individual stood up.  My inquiry as to whether the gun had been properly tested and adjusted produced an indifferent shrug of the shoulders from the man who was responsible for ensuring that the gun was properly sighted. When I told him to get in the tank and check it, he told me to ‘piss off’ and ‘check it myself’.

The Heights of Courage‘ by Avigdor Kahalani

Avigdor Kahalani commanded the 77th Armoured Battalion equipped with Centurion tanks on the Golan heights during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Kahalani’s battalion formed the backbone of the defence on the Golan Heights in the ‘Valley of Tears Battle then spearheaded the Israeli counter-assault down towards Damascus. With a government and often a military infatuated with special forces and ‘predator porn precision’, we lose sight to our peril just what armour en masse is capable of.  Kahalani’s book clearly highlights just what armour in mass brings, devastating combat capability and shock impact as well as giving what is probably the best example of I have read of armour and infantry operating in concert.

Each tank commander chose a position, moved into it and began to pick of Syrians.  It was as if the gunners were settling all the scores since midday on the Day of Atonement.  Syrian vehicles were burning, their crews scuttling back out of the field of fire.  We paid no attention to them.  The tanks were more important.  Few Syrian guns answered us.  Taken completely by surprise, the Syrian armour raced for shelter – and there was none.  We had the high ground once more and they were burning in the valley.

The tanks were firing shells at random and pouring machine-gun bursts into communication trenches along the roadside.  In this kind of advance, you keep firing even if you can’t see a target.  It keeps the enemy’s head down and causes the shock – which might be vital if you only have one axis on which to move.

Lastly an honourable mention.  “Tank Tracks To Rangoon” is an excellent book on the versatility and effectiveness of armour in complex terrain, it shatters many myths.