Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Two Years Difference

Earlier in the year I bumped into and got chatting to Richard Smith, the director at the Bovington Tank Museum. During the conversation he started talking about World War One, and jokingly mentioned that the popular image of WWI, as taught by the schools, and reinforced by popular media, seemed to be the British Army sitting in a muddy trench, writing epic poetry and getting executed for cowardice. Then 1918 rolls around a miracle happens and the Germans surrendered.

Part of it is the losses sustained during the Somme offensive, which we're currently in the middle of the 100th anniversary of. The British infamously launched a 14 mile offensive, following on from five days of preparation bombardment. On that first day over 60000 Allied troops were killed, to give you an idea of what that means. The modern British Army would have been annihilated, almost to a man in one day's fighting. Even with large underground mines being detonated to clear the way, the battles still lasted for months, until the 18th of November.

A mine at Beaumont Hamel, detonated at 0720 on the 1st of July.
At another place, also named Hamel two years later, the allies demonstrated how much they'd learned from the earlier part of the war. Hamel itself was south of the Somme River. Hamel was located on a ridge line between two patches of high ground. It allowed the Germans a commanding view for directing their artillery. Capturing it, as well as removing the German advantage would also allow the front lines to be straightened. For this job the Australians were tasked with the assault.

The date for the assault was to be 4th of July, 1918. A particularly auspicious date as the Australian forces had been bolstered by US troops. Although the US manpower had arrived it was attached to Australian units to learn the ropes. Suddenly, on the day before the battle, General Pershing learnt of the plan to commit US forces and he immediately ordered their withdrawal. This pulled just over half of the manpower planned for the attack just hours before it was due to be launched. By 1600 on the 3rd only about 1000 US soldiers remained in place. When the Australian leader received further instructions to withdraw all US personnel the Australian Corps Commander planning the action launched a spirited defence saying the troops were essential, the Australian Army Commander backed him at the risk of his own job. Eventually the decision reached Field Marshal Haig who simply pointed out the importance of the attack and that it had to go through, and so the US forces would remain. Thus on the 4th of July US troops first entered combat in World War One.
US and Australian soldiers.
Starting at 2230 the night before a covering barrage of shells was laid on German positions. Under the noise of this the sixty tanks amassed for the attack moved up. At 0310 on the 4th the Infantry launched their attack under the cover of a creeping barrage. The mass of tanks and infantry quickly overwhelmed the German positions, taking just 93 minutes to achieve their objectives which was three minutes longer than scheduled.
A tank in Hamel
Re-supply over torn up terrain had always been a problem, however four tanks were kept aside to bring supplies up, one Colonel upon reaching the area to be covered by his supply dump was surprised to find all the stores he could want.
Aircraft also tried to parachute in further ammunition supplies to the Australians, although with less success, as one plane crashed during this operation. This stunning success was achieved with just 1400 killed and wounded, and some of that had been caused by short shells from the artillery. Compare that to the Battle of the Somme where even with the mass casualties some objectives were not reached.

Oh and Richard Smith also pointed out that most of the war poetry written by the British was dire. He pointed out it was the WWI equivalent of social media and YouTube, where you can see most of its bad but a few gems shine through.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Argyll Law

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." is an old saying that I keep on thinking about when reading about events past. So many times you see the same things happening. Compare today's story to recent military operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula lies Aden, it's a large dormant volcano that juts out from the Arabian shore. One of the districts of Aden is known simply as Crater. During the late 1960's the British announced they were to leave Aden and granting its independence. This kicked off the usual round of bloodletting that had been held in check by the British presence but now rival Arab groups tried to be the dominating power after the withdrawal. The British forces in Crater were the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Scots Dragoon guards in armoured cars. Towards the end of June the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived to take over from the Fusiliers. As part of their preparation for the role back in England, the Argylls had spent their time training inside with the heating turned up and in full kit. After arrival both regiments were billeted at the barracks called Waterloo Lines.
The British High Command wanted to keep disruption in Aden to a minimum, and so set about with a softly softly approach. However the leader of the Argylls, Colonel Colin Campbell Mitchell had other views. A man of very robust views, his soldiers loved his approach, and were behind him.
Colonel Colin Campbell Mitchell
Shortly after their arrival the situation in Crater began to deteriorate. Arab groups within the South Arabian Army began to fight each other, seizing weapons from their barracks. The British advisors at the barracks along with the SAA officers locked themselves inside their guard room. Shortly afterwards a truck carrying a section of British forces that happened to be driving past on the way back from an exercise came under heavy fire from one of the groups inside the barracks killing all the British soldiers. A force of British troops with Scots DG armoured cars in support arrived on the scene, they rescued the officers, and retrieved the dead soldiers.
A section of Fusiliers in a Humber Pig made a couple of patrols into the Crater, the first was uneventful, the second one came under gunfire. The section dismounted and went after the their attackers, however the signaller in the section was killed thus severing communication with their HQ. After this loss of communication a joint patrol of Fusiliers and Argyll officers accompanied by several men in two Land Rovers set off to find out what had happened to the earlier patrol.
As this patrol drove past the police station, the Arab police launched a blistering attack. Killing several of the men, the survivors attempted to fight back but were cut down in the open street. Only one man, a Fusilier, managed to get out of the ambush, alone he held off his attackers from a flat for three hours before being captured. A force of volunteers from the Fusiliers accompanied by Ferret and Saladin armoured cars rushed to help and arrived on the scene to see the burning Land Rovers and the dead bodies lying in the street. They then also came under intense fire from the Arab police.
The Saladin commander requested permission to open fire with his main gun, however the High Command refused permission. This meant the British had to try and advance with only small arms which of course proved impossible. After several tries they were forced to withdraw.
The Fusilier who had survived the first ambush was later released unharmed. The bodies of his friends were not so lucky, first they were given a public trial by the police and then some were mutilated. Then the two groups within the SAA began to fight each other, while the Arab police did nothing. The British forces were refused permission to move in and solve the situation, and not to at least retrieve the bodies of their dead. The only thing that the British could do was deploy some snipers from 45 Commando on the high ground around Crater, over the next few days they killed several armed terrorists.

After three days Col Mitchell received permission to send in a probe to assess the situation. Col Mitchell's "probe" was actually to be the full scale assault on Crater. In preparation he began dispatching reconnaissance patrols into the area at night. To ensure the safety of his men he ordered the street lights switched off, which caused the civil authorities to complain. The British High Command immediately ordered the Argyll's to switch back on the lights, which they duly did but only after removing all the light bulbs in the street lights!
On July 2nd Col Mitchell himself led a patrol into Crater, stripping the roof off of a pair of Land Rovers they mounted a machine gun. The two Land Rovers then set out for a high speed patrol of Crater, as soon as they entered the area someone tried to drag a trailer full of Coke bottles across their escape route. Col Mitchell quickly spun the Land Rover around and smashed through the trailer at full speed, with the second Land Rover right behind him. The British authorities were later billed for the loss of 800 bottles of Coca-Cola.

The next day Col Mitchell launched his "probe". A platoon of Argyll's was airlifted in by Royal Navy helicopter and seized the gate, the rest of the Argyll's then moved in, linking up with the airborne assault. Led by a piper playing Scotland the Brave, the Argyll's pushed into Crater against no opposition, apart from a brief volley of small arms that was quickly replied to by a Saladin. When they reached the old fort, the Piper still playing, the SAA defenders fled (possibly from the bagpipes?). From there the Argyll's captured a number of important locations.
The next morning instead of the call to prayer the locals were woken by the Argyll's pipes and drums blasting out Long Reveille. The band was surrounded by riflemen, which delivered a clear message.
The Scots DG and the Fusiliers had been serving together for some time, when the armoured cars drove into Crater with the Argyll's the Scots DG mounted copies of the Fusiliers hackles on their Ariels. At the end of the day the leader of the armoured cars was able to radio to the Fusiliers "Your hackle flies over Crater again!"
The next problem to fix was the police. Col Mitchell held a meeting with the leader of the police force, who admitted the policemen were terrified of retribution from the Argyll's. Col Mitchell's terms were simple, and much like the standard for sieges for most of history. Lay down your arms, hand over the ring leaders, and the police would be unharmed. Resist and they'd be wiped out. Unsurprisingly the police surrendered.

The Argyll's then locked Crater down, establishing several fortified positions covering most of the main roads. If trouble started these positions could immediately take anyone under fire. Aggressive patrols began, and with this sense of security shops began to reopen and refugees began to return. In fact later on when the rest of Arden deteriorated things remained calm in Crater, all due to Argyll Law as it was called. Which was described by Col Mitchell as "They know if they start trouble we'll blow their bloody heads off!"
 The later was found out to be true as on several occasions terrorists and police tried to challenge the Argyll's and came off the worst. There was a period where the preferred method of attack was lobbing grenades at the Argyll's then the attacker would flee to a local mosque. The mosque's were considered safe as the British had been refused permission to enter and search by their high command. Instead they were to surround the mosque and call upon the Arab police to do the search. However this was quickly seen as a waste of time as the police would never find anything even if and when they arrived after several hours. To give you an idea of why the police were seen as ineffective, at one point Col Mitchell was nearly hit by a grenade attack with the grenade thrown from the police barracks. At Tehran a car full of police tried to take an Argyll patrol under fire, but found out about Argyll's law the hard way
Not Argyll's, but, presumably Para's. Note the military correct facial hair of the NCO. Issued for scaring locals.
Col Mitchell solved the grenade throwers hiding in Mosques by setting up sniper positions watching the front doors of the Mosque's. When a grenade thrower was seen to be entering or leaving he was shot. On the 24th three terrorists were killed by the snipers as they fled, and the terrorists quickly realised the Mosques were no longer places of safety.

Eventually the British forces withdrew, and the Arabian Peninsula collapsed into its current state. Col Mitchell was of course the last soldier out, as he always led from the front. An example of this is when he yelled at an officer taking shelter in a doorway, his comment was "What the hell are you doing? Get out in the middle of the street where people can see you!".

Image credits:
www.psywar.org, www.bfbs.com, www.nam.ac.uk, argylls1945to1971.co.uk and www.dailyrecord.co.uk