Adrian Hill, a former soldier and diplomat continues his series on the effect of Brexit on Britain’s Defence and Diplomacy. Disclaimer: At times we publish the views of our members. This article is not an official Veterans for Britain paper and does not necessarily reflect the view of Veterans for Britain.
‘ It is fashionable in English politics to discredit the opinion of people on the spot. They are supposed to be excited and prejudiced, to be unable to take the judicial and comprehensive views which can, it is believed, be adopted only in an atmosphere of ignorant indifference.’
Lieutenant Winston S Churchill 4th Hussars for The Daily Telegraph, Shumshuk 21 September 1897
General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff, recently gave a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) about the urgent need for the Army to modernise. This good news was long overdue. I liked his emphasis on leadership training for dispersal tactics and a more structured approach to signals and cyber warfare. None-the-less, the British Army never fought in Vietnam and remains about fifty years out of date when it comes to tactical organisation for airmobile warfare. Sir Nick also mentioned how the Russians were designing two-man crew tanks as though this idea was brand new – back in the early 1980s I wrote an article for the RUSI Journal that described AAI Corporation’s new two man tank which could add or strip off armour like a knight of old. AAI were based in Baltimore but the tank was under test out at the Carlisle proving grounds. The design, HSVT ( L ) was intended to provide air-portable tanks for the Rapid Deployment Force. The Army ( US ) surprise, surprise, the Managing Director of AAI, Ivan Barr told me and an American friend, wanted a commander in charge of the two crew! So they designed one with enough room, although inevitably this tank was slightly heavier. Unfortunately, while the US Marine Corps showed interest, the Army decided to stick with their new big beast called the Abrams.
I watched the lecture from Switzerland – an excellent improvement for members who are not based near London – thus was not able to raise a hand for a question. The direst threats described by the general were from Russia, on land towards the eastern marches of the European Union, by sea and air towards these islands. The general’s main words on the European Union concerned the wisdom of completing the final pull out of all British troops from Germany. He thinks not. And some 4,000 British troops will remain in North Germany based around Paderborn and Sennelager, home of the 20th Armoured Brigade. At first sight this looks common sense – unless, of course, you’ve read edition 45 of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel which came out on the 4 November last year. It doesn’t sound as though they read Der Spiegel in the Cabinet Office or the Ministry of Defence. Surely the British Embassy in Berlin takes a copy although they may draw other conclusions from the article – Denken auf Vorrat – Thinking about the future emergency larder is the closest way of saying it in English. Perhaps budget cuts forced the embassy to cancel their subscription. I’m sure some kind soul would have passed them a copy. Unlike politicians and officials in London, those of us who live on the Continent can watch pretty well every TV station and listen to every radio station from Portugal to Poland.
As the media were invited to the lecture at the RUSI the traditional question and answer session afterwards was on the record. (By custom it’s normally off.) One questioner pointed out that not once had China been mentioned. Sir Nick replied that China was not an immediate threat – personally, I would have qualified that with ‘yet’ because otherwise his answer rather brushes aside the growing challenge from China to our freedom of passage at sea and how rebuilding our deterrence at sea and in the air after such deliberate politically driven damage takes years, not months. Nobody challenged the absurd situation where more than forty years after the Vietnam War the British Army still relies on the RAF for its troop-lifting helicopters. During the Vietnam War both the 1st Air Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division each had 450 helicopters on the TO&E. Yet the biggest surprise was that nobody raised Vorausshau 2040 – the German Army’s recent paper, Strategic Perspective 2040 – which last November somebody leaked to Der Spiegel.
The leaked paper was reported at the time by the British media and found its way to the middle pages of at least three broadsheets. None pointed out the implications or else they didn’t realise what they were reading. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is rather like a religious order whose monastery occupies the south side of Downing Street. Doctrine is strictly policed. Only true believers in the European Union have been allowed into the order for over half a century after seizing the rival order of Commonwealth believers with a Papal bull from the north side of Downing Street. Heresy is rare and always stamped out. The Foreign Office took over the Commonwealth Relations Office – who controlled most of the aid budget – during 1968 but the merger had been under way for nearly four years. The Foreign Office had supported appeasement right up to May 1940 when Hitler occupied France after defeating Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium. Italy, Hungary and Romania were allied to Hitler. The following spring Hitler seized Yugoslavia and Greece and by June had invaded Russia. Five months later Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Britain’s pre-war foreign policy had vanished in several puffs of smoke. Churchill’s answer was to take one of the cleverest people in the Labour Party, Hugh Dalton, and put him in charge of what became known as SOE, Special Operations Executive, with orders to set Europe ablaze. And they did – by building up intelligence gathering networks and armed resistance groups all over Europe.
After the war, the Foreign Office and Secret Service very quickly disbanded SOE which both regarded as a threat to their own influence. This short-sighted act of self-preservation by both organisations was a strategic blunder. SOE was the ideal force for all the clandestine wars that Britain would fight – from Malaya to Afghanistan. The next Foreign Office blunder was the Suez Operation in 1956 when Eisenhower called a halt to Eden’s invasion of the Suez Canal Zone with the French, not to mention the Israelis. For the Foreign Office mandarins the European Union became a life support system just across the Channel. But what to do about that huge Commonwealth power base just across the courtyard in Whitehall? Hence the merger that cleared the way for the next massive strategic blunder – joining the Common Market. Now I fear they look desperate enough to preside over another historic wrong turn.
The Prime Minister and others have made clear that they think the European Union will strike a reasonable bargain over trade and this goal is helped by proclaiming that our Armed Forces remain ready to defend Europe. I think this is to completely misunderstand what has been going on inside the European Union since the 23 June 2016. The two largest economies in the European Union are less than an hour up the road from where I’m typing. The French are more obvious in Geneva but up here on the Bernese side of the Roesti Graben you find that Germans pop out of the snow. A quarter of the population in Switzerland are not Swiss which leaves six million real Swiss such as my wife and family. Just up the road are eighty-three million Germans with an education system that produces more doctors, scientists, researchers, engineers, and academics than jobs for them. We have many good doctors and dentists from Germany but there are ten times as many people in the British Isles. Here any Swiss will tell you, they’re everywhere. The main newspaper is owned by a German paper. Swissair went bust and Lufthansa bought its cheap Swiss rival. They bring whole teams to the hospitals and the same is happening in the universities and the arts. Some academics bring their politics with them. The professor of Second World War History, a German, at Bern University would not sponsor a lecture I gave about Winston Churchill as a young man, because it might be divisive. Fortunately the Professor of English, who is British, was happy to give his support – after all, the young cavalry officer grew up to become a Nobel Prize Winner for literature. Let me simply add that with all the pressure on Switzerland to give up its tradition of direct democracy, rightly or wrongly, many people here believe that ultimately is coming from Berlin although Brussels demands the bribes and delivers the threats.
As for ourselves, there is more than enough evidence in the public domain to conclude that the European Union is very keen to keep our import market open and the pound hose squirting money. They’re equally anxious to keep us trussed up a huge fishing net of regulations and standards negotiated over decades to give German industry the power to ban often better rival products from the European Union. Should we slip past the open mouth of this net trap, they fear our islands could turn into a nightmare neighbour with the economic power of another Japan.
Don’t take my word for it – read Der Spiegel and judge for yourself.