Book Review: Boots on the Ground - Britain and her Army Since 1945 by Richard Dannatt

This is an interesting account of why and how the British Army has evolved since 1945 and follows neatly from Correlli Barnett’s own contribution, ‘Britain and her Army’. Most students of military history will be familiar with the telling: the occupation of Germany; Malaya; Korea; Suez, Kenya; Cyprus; Borneo; Aden; Dhofar; the Falklands; Northern Ireland; the Balkans;  Sierra Leone; Iraq; and Afghanistan. The summaries are succinct and more or less unambiguous, recognising failures as much as successes. My focus can only be on but three of these: the Dhofar war (not there but researched in some detail);  Northern Ireland (5years on operations plus 6 years as technical sponsor in MOD);  and the Falklands War (Signals Officer 2 PARA and Battalion historian).

As regards Dhofar, there are anomalies, such as the claim that Sultan Qaboos ‘overthrew’ his father. This was in fact  a very British coup in 1970. In so doing, Brigadier John Graham deserves all credit for having ‘turned’ this war. Regrettably the myth that the Mirbat battle of July 1972 was the critical point is maintained in this account -  in which case, why did it continue until 1976? There are some very basic errors of geography – Yemen is on western border of Oman, not its eastern border as stated (p 143). 

Though I agree that for most part, an SAS squadron was an assistance to the war effort, reality was that it took around 10,000 Omani  troops and their mostly British seconded and contract officers to bring about victory, not least with the assistance of the RAF Wessex helicopters, Royal Engineers (Operation TENABLE) and the medical support, long overdue,  - RAF Salalah, itself defended by the RAF Regiment, not to forget the significant Iranian and Jordanian assistance. Mention also should have been made of the crucial part played by the successive commanders, Major General Tim Creasey and Brigadier Jack Fletcher, who between them set the conditions that permitted Major General Ken Perkins and Brigadier John Akehurst to achieve ultimate success.

The chapter on the Falklands war is perhaps the least well researched.  There is no mention at all of the clear connection between the experience of battlefield command in Dhofar and subsequent operations in the Falklands. Ian Gardiner, RM, has done so in both of his excellent accounts and in the latter instance, providing the sole account of Falklands operations at the tactical, company level. His critique of ‘Adjustable Military Fuck Ups (AMFU)  -such as a wrong bearing, Semi-Adjustable Military Fuck Ups (SAMFU), as in the wrong wadi, and Complete Military Fuck Ups (CMFU) as in ‘ambush!’ bears careful thought. In case any school boy is reading this, you turn left out of Plymouth if heading for Norway and right if towards the South Atlantic (p 170). 

Quite how the 2 PARA padre, David Cooper, had any insight as to the decisions made over Darwin and  Goose Green is beyond me given that H Jones never communicated his intentions to anyone else. Jones was ordered to ‘raid’ Darwin and Goose  Green yet somehow this became an order to ‘capture’ the settlements, yet out with the military capacity to do so. The military purpose of this change of mission continues to elude me. The Argentines further to the east did not ‘collapse’ as a consequence of the  CMFU that was the actuality of Darwin and Goose Green, the bacon saved, so to speak, by the professionalism of each company commander and their subordinates. 
I do not accept that the BBC ‘was tipped off’ as regards the attack and thus surprise was lost – rather, that the Special Projects Group (SPG) in MOD did so, with the best of intentions, thus convincing the Argentine command that the advance on Port Stanley was on the southern flank, when it was actually in the north – and it worked. Jones reported that he was ‘on schedule’ to have taken the settlements by dawn on 28 May. In fact, the battle continued until the following day. There were no Pucara ‘helicopters’ – these were fixed wing aircraft in the ground attack role – and very nasty if you happen to be in their line of fire. There is no mention at all that Darwin Hill was ‘vital ground’ to both sides and was  held by a company of Argentines, yet nobody was tasked with taking this rather obvious feature before dawn. Thus A Compaany was ‘ambushed as it approached Darwin settlement, eventually taking the hill after a long and bitter fight. 

The claim by Julian Thompson that he should have ordered a two battalion attack is simply risible – the ground permitted at most two companies at any one time in the advance. There was an earlier Harrier attack on 27 May, the pilot, Bob Iveson,  shot down in the process. Harriers only appeared on the scene on the evening of 28 May. There is no evidence at all that the mortal wounding of H Jones had any effect on morale. Nor is there mention that Richard Nunn was shot down and killed by a PUCARA in his attempt to evacuate Jones (still then alive) to the field hospital, nor of the co-pilot, Bill Belcher, who lost his leg when the helicopter was engaged. The ‘white flag’ incident was not a violation of international law, rather, a cock up between both 2 PARA and the Argentines. Nobody knew of the civilian population’s incarceration in the Community Centre in Goose Green until Darwin settlement was secure – which even then made the notion of ‘capture’ of the settlement all the more ludicrous.  In short, the battle for Goose Green was of no consequence beyond that 255 young soldiers were either killed or wounded, thus clogging the medical chain and leading to the oversight and treatment of over 1000 POWs – it did not take the land forces even a yard further to Port Stanley and had no impact on the subsequent battles that were essential to winning the war. Just ask the veterans of Mount Longdon or Tumbledown, not least , those from 7 Regiment who opposed 2 PARA on Wireless Ridge. At the same juncture, 40 Commando was left as a highly trained and capable unit to guard the landing areas, thus allowing 5 Infantry Brigade its  advance on Port Stanley. Hence the fiasco at Fitzroy,  when 48 guardsmen were killed in a Skyhawk attack in broad daylight  - Fitzroy itself overlooked by Mount Harriet, held by the Argentines, who unsurprisingly, cheered as the attack went in. Another CMFU. Yet (p 182) the reader is convinced that the ships were at Bluff Cove at the time – they were never there. Why is it that such levels of military incompetence become ‘overlooked’ in the telling?  

The chapter on Northern Ireland in 1997 is not much better. The impression is that the ‘watchtowers in South Armagh were an impediment to the Good Friday Agreement’, when so clearly, they were a factor in its effect. Stephen Restorick paid for this with his life on 12 February 1997. Dannatt might not have known how Ulster Television was simply lied to by the RUC, claiming that Restorick had accidentally killed himself. The root cause, so to speak, was an evergreen tree, that permitted the SAMA sniper team the cover from R13 on Camlough Mountain, which otherwise, would have spotted the sniper vehicle, if not visually, then by heat signature.  There is no mention at all of the climax of this war, the arrest of the entire SAMA sniper team with weapons and its vehicle, which did bring about the collapse of PIRA and the Good Friday Agreement. 

The incompetence of the infantry in its ‘domination’ of West Belfast in the Belfast Roulement Battalion (BRB) is itself staggering. Operational Analysis (OA) of all attacks in West Belfast between 1992 and 31 August 1994 (the day of PIRA’S ‘ceasefire’) proved  conclusively that it was tactical ineptitude that gave PIRA the opportunities it needed to carry out repeated attacks with impunity. 

As for the deployment to Afghanistan in 2006, Dannatt was by then CGS (until 2009) and thus must have been involved in the decisions so fatally made at the time. Yet, according to Christina Lamb (Sunday Times, 16 October 2016), there must be a causal link between his role as CGS and this disastrous deployment. Others have suggested in similar vein – that it was Dannatt who urged the Helmand deployment so as to make up for the loss of credibility after Iraq, 2003 and especially Basra. Dannatt denies any such connection. I am inclined to support Lamb’s contention that someone is not being too honest with truth over all this.   

My real criticism of this ‘history’ is not so much Dannatt’s highly selective account of it but that MOD remains wedded to the unofficial doctrine of  ‘Put Up, Shut Up, Cover Up’. Where are the MOD enquiries? Even the official history of the Malayan Emergency has yet to be published. And in more recent times, the MOD account of Operation BANNER is almost farcical in its content. Ditto, where is the MOD enquiry into Iraq 2003-9 or Afghanistan 2001 – 2013? Small wonder that lessons are never learned.

David Benest OBE