5th Armoured Car Company in China, 1927-29

Rolls Royce armoured car shanghai 1927

Since 1644, the people of China were ruled by the Qing Dynasty culminating in the ascendance to the throne of the two-year old Emperor Puyi in 1908. After two years on the throne, China was rocked by series of revolts and uprisings known collectively as the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 which saw the young Emperor’s abdication. In the years that followed, China’s political landscape was dominated by in-fighting and even warlordism coupled with an unsuccessful attempt to restore Puyi to the throne in 1917.

In 1919, the anti-monarchist and strongly nationalist party the Kuomintang was formed with the aim of unifying the country and defeating the warlords. The Kuomintang sought support from the western nations such as Britain, France and the United States all of whom had invested money, people and resources in China for their own economic gain. Their requests were largely ignored by the western nations and so they turned to the newly created Soviet Union for help.

The Soviets agreed but they also agreed to supply their ideological comrades in the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Soviet plan was to have both parties defeat the warlords and have them form two power blocks which could then be manipulated for their own gains due to their reliance on Soviet support. In 1924, with Soviet assistance the Kuomintang formed a military academy to train members of its own political army and despite a power sharing agreement signed in 1923, the CPC became displaced and its members had to join the Kuomintang if they wished to keep their political positions.

This influx of former CPC members saw the party divided along left- and right-wing ideologies which came to a head when its leader Sun Yan-sen died in 1925. After Sun’s death the CPC began to rise in prominence again thanks to the left-wing support it gained from within the Kuomintang. In early 1927, both sides of the divide decided to move their headquarters with the CPC and their left-wing supporters transferring from Guangzhou to Wuhan while the remainder of the Kuomintang moved to Jiangxi. The lines were drawn and after a Communist uprising in Nanchang in August of that year the fighting quickly spilled out across the country.

The British Empire was still a major force in Asia at this time and its own economic interests reached within China’s borders. Throughout the 19th century, Britain and several other European nations sought to dominate the export of Chinese products such as Chinese tea, silk, porcelain and even opium all of which was highly sought after in European markets. British efforts to trade with the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century saw the two powers clash in the infamous Opium Wars which resulted in China submitting to many British demands.

The conflicts also saw Hong Kong leased to Britain and British ships and exporters were given trading rights in major cities like Shanghai, Hankou and Canton. British influences in these cities was clear with foreign districts (known as concessions) springing up that were modelled along UK lines. Here, wealthy British businessmen and their families could live in a facade of Great Britain with homes that would not look out of place in the wealthy parts of London or Liverpool.

The British government viewed the internal politics of China in the 1920s primarily on the basis of how it would affect British interests in the region and unless these interests were threatened, Britain had little interest in getting involved. Such a threat emerged in January 1927 when the British concession in Hankou, a 116 acre stretch of land, was occupied by Kuomintang forces marching north. This sparked a political crisis that went beyond the loss of a piece of land. British interests were directly threatened which had the potential to effect the market for Chinese goods in Europe but it was also a snub against British authority; one that could very easily spread.

After the Kuomintang invaded Hankou, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s China Station, Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt, sought to establish a British military presence in Shanghai to protect British lives and property. This was agreed to and the Shanghai Defence Force was formed comprising of elements of all three British military services under the overall command of Major General John Duncan who formed a headquarters at King’s College in Hong Kong. The Royal Navy primarily concerned itself with protecting shipping in and out of Shanghai while the Royal Air Force provided logistical support and eventually conducted reconnaissance duties on behalf of the British Army stationed in Shanghai.

10384653_701105933343214_3824665908296579757_nOne unit of the Army dispatched to China was the 5th Armoured Car Company (ACC) that was equipped with the now legendary Rolls-Royce Armoured Car (Right). The 5th ACC had been formed in Ireland in 1920 from elements of the 17th Tank Battalion as the revolutionary violence began to reach its peak. The 5th ACC was then transferred to Scarborough following the partition of Ireland before moving on to Warrington in Cheshire. In January 1927, as the Shanghai Defence Force was being formed it was decided to send the 5th ACC to support them and the men along with their Rolls-Royces quickly sailed to the Far East arriving in March.

The 5th ACC had three primary roles in China;

  1. Keeping the peace within the British concessions by preventing Kuomintang or CPC forces fighting there.
  2. Patrolling land trade routes to protect them from attack by combatants or bandits.
  3. To man road blocks guarding British-controlled areas.

The British Army’s Armoured Car Companies had extensive experience at that time of such operations. As well as in Ireland they had operated extensively in India during the 1920s helping to police trouble spots in the North West Frontier. Any thoughts of them having to “retake” the British concession in Hankou if only to restore British pride were nullified by an agreement for joint British-Kuomintang administration in February before the 5th ACC arrived which some outside observers viewed as British imperial weakness.

Despite the tense atmosphere, the men of the 5th ACC were left relatively unmolested as the two Chinese powers fought for control of the country. They would sometimes encounter the odd rifle round being sent their way as they patrolled the roadways although whether it was from the Kuomintang, the CPC or just trigger happy bandits few could be certain. Operations in China saw the need to introduce modifications to the vehicles most notably the fitting of a protruding, front bumper bar to protect the wheels from being punctured in a collision with Shanghai’s often dense road traffic of bicycles, carts, lorries and of course people. Another modification saw the fitting of armoured covers for the tops of the turrets which raised the vehicles’ profile leading to them being referred to as “top hats” by their crews.

While the Chinese were more concerned with fighting each other than the British, the droves of poorly trained but heavily armed Chinese fighters particularly with the CPC who relied on a peasant army across the country meant that it was all but inevitable the 5th ACC would see action. It came during a patrol on Darroch Road (now renamed Doulon Road) in Shanghai led by Lieutenant T. P . Newman NC, DCM. A letter home from one of the men in the patrol which was reprinted in A Pictorial History – Royal Tank Regiment by George Forty describes the encounter;

We have all been seeing plenty of life in the way of work, patrols day and night, and have had one or two small shows. Newman’s was of course the biggest; he has his right arm smashed up.

He was caught in a narrow road at 15 yards range and got three bullets through the driver’s observation slit, one of which wounded him and what with the splash and the remaining two, the whole crew were hit and the car ditched. Newman got out to get the [Rolls-Royce] out and was hit by another bullet in the same arm, one inch above the first wound. This one broke the bone and put him right out of action.

His car was pulled out by the other car of the sub-section and taken back to camp. Wilcox carried on the show for the next six hours and then I went up with my sub-section and remained on the spot for four days. Things are very quiet now.

After the show we counted 91 bullet marks on Newman’s car.

Fortunately for the men of the 5th ACC, such incidents were the exception. As the year went on the Kuomintang began to wrestle control of the city away from the CPC reducing the risk to British interests and after August, British forces began to be withdrawn. The 5th ACC would be one of the longer lasting units however and would remain in China through 1928 before finally withdrawing to Egypt in January 1929. There they handed over their vehicles to the 12th Royal Lancers who were converting from horses to armoured vehicles.

One of the vehicles used by the 5th Armoured Car Company in China survives to this day at the Bovington Tank Museum.

 

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China warns UK about sending new carriers to the South China Sea

HMS QE 8The Chinese government have responded to Sir Kim Darroch’s claims that the UK plans to deploy its new aircraft carriers to the South China Sea to exercise the right to “freedom of navigation” despite renewed Chinese territorial claims. Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, made the announcement earlier this month when speaking at an event in Washington during which he said;

Certainly, as we bring our two new aircraft carriers on stream in 2020 and as we renew and update our defence forces, they will be seen in the Pacific…And we absolutely share the objective of this U.S. administration, and the next one, to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open.

Darroch made the announcement as the Royal Air Force sent a flight of Typhoon FGR.4s to Japan for historic military exercises as part of what both countries have said is a tightening of security ties. Japan is one of several countries at odds with China over territorial claims in the region and the UK’s new interest in working closer with Tokyo on security matters has not gone unnoticed by Beijing.

The Chinese state-owned news agency, Xinhua News, reported that if Britain was to get more involved in military operations that were contrary to Chinese interests such as deliberately sailing warships in disputed waters then it would not be in London’s best interests economically. Xinhua effectively reported that Chinese investment in the post-Brexit UK would likely be reduced in protest. According to the Asia Times, between 2005  and 2015 the Chinese invested £34.3 billion pounds in the UK with the highest profile project being the admittedly problematic China General Nuclear Power Company Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

peoples-liberation-army-navy-air-force-china-j-15-liaoning-carrierIf economical threats were not enough, this week saw the People’s Liberation Army Navy conduct their first major live fire exercise involving their own carrier, the Liaoning. The carrier deployed ten of its Sukhoi Su-33-inspired J-15 multi-role combat aircraft that carried out air-to-air and air-to-ground training including live weaponry. As well as the carrier, ten warships and supporting vessels also participated in the exercise showing that China is realising its ambition of becoming a major naval power.

The question therefore becomes what is more important to London; maintaining the special military relationship with the US under a Trump presidency which has promised to maintain “peace through strength” regarding China or encouraging Beijing to continue to invest in the UK post-Brexit and step back from its defence ties with the US and Japan?

It seems for the time being, despite Darroch’s choice of words in Washington, the UK is still sitting on the fence. The British embassy in Washington later stated that any British military forces deployed in the region would use “internationally-recognised air ways and waters” rather than conduct the more aggressive “freedom of navigation” operations the US and Japan carry out in areas disputed by China. That may change however if come January when Donald Trump takes office he demands London take a stronger approach to China.

Royal Navy’s new carriers will deploy to Pacific to exercise freedom of navigation

HMS QE 1

British ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, has told a Washington think tank that despite Britain’s current focus on the Middle East combating Daesh in Iraq and Syria there will be increased focus on the Pacific region as the two new carriers become operational around 2020. Speaking at an event in Washington attended by the Japanese ambassador to the US, Kenchiro Sasae, he said that Britain will play its part in maintaining the security and stability of the Pacific region with emphasis on maintaining the right to freedom of navigation.

Certainly, as we bring our two new aircraft carriers on stream in 2020 and as we renew and update our defence forces, they will be seen in the Pacific…And we absolutely share the objective of this U.S. administration, and the next one, to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open.

The first step in this renewed British military interest in the region has already been taken. In October this year, four RAF Typhoon FGR.2s from No.II(AC) Squadron landed at Misawa Air Base in Northern Japan to participate in Exercise Guardian North 16 with Japanese and US forces. The aircraft then flew to South Korea for exercises with Korean and US forces.

The Japanese ambassador added that during a meeting held at the Pentagon in Washington at the time of the exercise, the UK agreed to increase the level of naval cooperation with Japan and the US in the South and East China Sea as tensions continue with Beijing regarding territorial claims in the region. The ambassador said that Tokyo welcomed Britain’s increased focus on maintaining regional stability.

Darroch’s words come on the eve of President-elect Donald Trump taking up office in Washington on a pledge to build up the US military. Regarding China whom Trump has been deeply critical of, his advisers have said that the new US President will pursue a policy of “peace through strength” in the Pacific to challenge China’s efforts to assert its own authority over the region.

 

RAF deploy to Japan for historic military exercise

raf-typhoon-fgr-4-misawa-air-base-japan-guardian-north-16

Official photograph of RAF and JASDF personnel following arrival of No.II(AC) Squadron to Japan (JASDF/Tokyo Embassy via Twitter)

Four Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoon FGR.2s of No.II (AC) Squadron have arrived in Japan to participate in a military exercise with their Japanese hosts as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen security ties between the two countries. The four Typhoons arrived at Misawa Air Base in Northern Japan on Saturday having deployed from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. The four Typhoons are being supported by a Voyager refuelling aircraft and up to 200 personnel.

The exercise, Guardian North 16, will see the RAF fighters pitted against the Japan Air Self Defence Force’s (JASDF) premier fighters namely the F-15 Eagle and the Japanese manufactured Mitsubishi F-2 (a development of the American F-16 Fighting Falcon). Guardian North 16 will not be the end of the RAF deployment in Asia however as the Typhoons will then move on to South Korea for yet more exercises this time with the Republic of Korea Air Force.

Wing Commander Roger Elliott of No.II (AC) Squadron told reporters;

This is the most ambitious deployment that the Typhoon Force has ever done. I think it’s probably the most ambitious deployment that the Air Force has done to the Far East…We will learn from each other, and ultimately we will make friendships that will tie us together more closely in the future.

The Japanese Defense Ministry told CNN;

Conducting this exercise in Japan will help in strengthening the UK’s commitment in the Asia Pacific region and increasing other European countries’ interest in the security situation in Japan and the Asia Pacific region.

The ministry denied that the deployment was in response to any specific threat in the region. This comes in the wake of fresh protests against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and China’s ongoing claim to the Senkaku islands which Japan controls. In August of this year nearly 230 Chinese fishing boats supported by armed Chinese Coast Guard ships approached the disputed islands in what Japan considered an act of intimidation.

The RAF Typhoons are scheduled to leave Japan for South Korea on November 6th.

 

Is the British nuclear deterrent relevant in the 21st century?

 

They sail beneath the waves almost totally unseen carrying more firepower than was unleashed in World War Two. The nuclear ballistic missile submarine or SSBN is the ultimate safeguard from direct attack by a foreign power. Not knowing where one of these Trident nuclear missile armed behemoths is at any one time means that an enemy country cannot launch an attack without sustaining unthinkable losses to their own people and national infrastructure – a concept known quite aptly in military circles as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Vanguard-class nuclear submarine trident

It is truly stomach wrenching to contemplate just how devastating these vessels potentially are to humanity itself and it is that fact above all others that has spurred the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In Britain, the country that played a big role in developing America’s atomic bomb and the third independent nuclear power to rise, the lobby for nuclear disarmament has seen a powerful ally take prominence in British politics in the form of the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has been a prolific anti-nuclear campaigner for many years and when he was elected to leader of the Labour Party he made it abundantly clear that if elected he planned to take the first steps to the nuclear disarmament of the Royal Navy. Corbyn even went as far as to remove his shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, in a cabinet reshuffle because supposedly she was not against the nuclear deterrent unlike her replacement, Emily Thornbury, who is much more vocally opposed to Britain’s nuclear submarines.

In an, a post on his website entitled Nuclear Madness he says;

“Nobody is made more secure by this insane waste of resources on destruction.”

Vanguard-class nuclear submarine trident2Corbyn’s Labour Party is not alone in British politics with their anti-nuclear stance. The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also firmly against a nuclear armed Britain. However, David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party disagrees and have begun the process of replacing the Trident nuclear missile-armed Vanguard-class submarines with a fleet of three new Successor-class vessels believing the nuclear deterrence is key to Britain’s security.

Clearly these are fundamentally opposite opinions and this has reignited the debate with more passion than ever before. So the question becomes; is the nuclear deterrence relevant in the 21st century especially in light of the threat from the Islamic State terror group which the average person on the street views as the most immediate threat to their way of life?

To begin to answer this question one must first look at the history of the nuclear deterrence itself which can be traced back to work carried out in British laboratories before the Second World War. Like America and Germany, Britain was carrying out the ground work that would ultimately lead to nuclear weapons which Britain viewed as a way of safeguarding her empire against the ever increasing threat from Germany, Japan, Italy and the Soviet Union all of whom were expanding at the time. Winston Churchill wrote of the potential of nuclear weapons as a deterrence in the 1930s even though they were still a fantasy at that time. When war broke out in 1939 Britain lacked the resources to continue the work on her own but when America joined the fray in 1941 the scientists involved were transferred to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project which would lead to the world’s first atomic bombs which ended World War II when they were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which resulted in almost 200,000 deaths.

After the war, Britain expected to be repaid for its part in developing its ally’s superweapon with atomic weapons for their own forces built with US support. However, the United States refused and pulled all support for Britain’s nuclear weapons program wanting to establish a nuclear monopoly. The British scientists returned to Britain and were instructed to work on the first British atomic bomb using the experience they had gained in the United States.

vickers valiant nuclear testBritain detonated its first atomic weapon on October 3rd 1952 and were soon fielding a fleet of bombers for the Royal Air Force to deliver them on to a target should World War III break out. Realising they had lost their monopoly by the 1950s the US relaxed its policy and began supplying British forces with their more advanced nuclear weapons with which to square off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. By the late 1950s, Britain and the US developed a joint operational plan for the use of nuclear weapons against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe but the bombers that carried them were becoming increasingly vulnerable to advanced Soviet fighters and surface-to-air weapons. Therefore, the two countries began developing the Skybolt missile which was a very long range nuclear-armed weapon which could be fired by the bombers far from the target. However, when President John F. Kennedy arrived at the White House he pulled the plug on the project which left Britain’s nuclear bombers on the verge of becoming obsolete.

In order to keep Britain in the nuclear game with the United States which was (and remains) important both strategically and politically to Washington, Kennedy offered to sell Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missiles for Britain to put in its own force of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Thus the Royal Navy took over the nuclear deterrence role from the Royal Air Force in the late 1960s. By the 1980s the Polaris-armed submarines were in need of replacement and this led to Britain purchasing the UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for use in four new Vanguard-class submarines.

HMS Vnegeance Royal Navy

Despite the end of the Cold War the submarines continued to carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent through the nineties and the first decade of the 21st century but are now fast approaching the end of their useful lives and need replacing themselves which has led to the current debate in London. Aside from their moral implications, the cost of replacing these three vessels is one of the biggest sources for opposition with varying figures being thrown around by those for and against David Cameron’s plans. Any figures for the Successor-class at the moment are speculative but in 2014 the independent Trident Commission estimated the lifetime cost (building and operation) of a Trident replacement as being at least £100 billion. With Britain still recovering from the economic recession that blighted Europe and North America almost eight years ago it is easy to see why even leaders of the British armed forces are starting to voice their opposition with Britain’s conventional forces looking increasingly stretched having to tackle Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya as well as maintain garrisons on the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. To put this figure in to perspective it is the equivalent sum to how much it would cost to build approximately 95 Type 45 destroyers or 16 Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

That is a staggering realization so just why does David Cameron and his Conservative Party feel that the need to spend that much on a weapon system that in theory will never be used? Just what is the threat to Britain in 2016 that justifies such an expense?

The first answer that springs to mind is of course, Russia. After the initial honeymoon period of the post-Cold War years, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the explosion of Russian nationalism has seen Russia projecting its influence beyond its borders once more to such an extent that it would not be inaccurate to say that we are truly in the grip of “Cold War II”. Russian successes in Georgia and the Crimea have only encouraged Putin further leading to his boldest step yet; putting Russian forces in to Syria to support President Assad whom the west wants removed. This has had consequences beyond Syria’s borders with British aircraft (below) and warships playing cat-and-mouse with their Russian counterparts in the Baltic and North Atlantic while the war of words becomes more bitter.

RAF Typhoon Tu-160 BlackjackBut just how far is Putin willing to push things with the west to achieve his aims? Excluding the incident earlier this year in which a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border Putin has been very careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the western powers regarding Syria. If one looks at the situation with Russia regarding Syria in a Cold War context, then both sides know the possible consequences of escalating the situation in Syria. While it is not openly admitted, the fact that the United States, Britain, France and Russia all have nuclear weapons and all have interests in Syria is what has kept these powers from reacting to one another militarily. If we take the Su-24 shootdown but without the risk of nuclear weapons, then it is likely that Russia would have responded to Turkey with military force plunging Europe in to another massive conventional war. If proof was ever needed that this could happen, you need only remember that World War I began with one man armed only with a handgun and a strong sense of nationalism.

But just as nuclear weapons have prevented open conflict with Russia thus far they have also created the problem of just what the west can do about Putin’s actions in Syria. No one wants the situation to escalate to the point of direct confrontation but with Russian forces firmly embedded in the country to meet Putin’s aims then the west is clearly in a weak position. Only time will tell how this chapter of history will ultimately play out.

Kim Jong Un nuclear missileBeyond Russia other potential nuclear threats to Britain come from China despite the recent economic progress made between London and Beijing. China is increasingly locking horns with its old enemies of Taiwan and Japan both of whom are supported by the United States and therefore by association, Britain. To the south of China, the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons and missile programs (right) while India and Pakistan still stare at one another across the border with their nuclear weapons sitting ready for the final confrontation. Then of course there is the situation with Iran’s nuclear weapons program which despite having calmed down somewhat remains a source for possible conflict in the future should relations with the west worsen again. If any of these countries utilise nuclear weapons against their neighbours, then things could start happening very quickly that could see the world’s other nuclear powers dragged in leading to the potential for an apocalypse however it is this fact that has largely kept these countries in line with their weapons.

The cynic would perhaps argue that Britain and America’s nuclear weapons have not done anything to curb these developments and may even be responsible for encouraging them. The fact of the matter is however that despite efforts to stop it, nuclear proliferation is increasing around the world. When it boils down to it nuclear weapons are simply a matter of physics rather than some state secret and theoretically, any country or even a well-organized terrorist group anywhere in the world can build them if they pour enough resources and research in to making them.

So to reference Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about how safer the world would be without British nuclear weapons we have to remember that the threat remains to us from across the globe regardless. Removing the nuclear weapons capability from the British arsenal will not change that fact but retaining those weapons will mean that Britain will be able to exert its influence on the world stage when it comes to dealing with other nuclear armed countries as opposed to surrendering it to a nuclear armed ally who may not have our best interests at heart. This, coupled with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), means that far from being a weapon system that may never be used the nuclear deterrence is in fact in constant use by its very existence.

Vanguard class

Does that justify a £100bn price tag?

That’s a question we each have to ask ourselves regarding our view of the world since as tax-payers we are funding the weapons. The debate will never go away even if Corbyn gets his wish and the weapons are dismantled; the debate will then become about resurrecting the deterrence amid a loss of political influence and/or a direct threat to national security. Whatever your views on their use in the 21st century just remember this one undeniable fact; the threat of nuclear weapons did prevent World War III throughout the years of the Cold War and if we are truly in Cold War II then surely we should retain that asset to continue to do the same.

 

NEWS: RAF jets may deploy to Japan in near future

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RAF Typhoon FGR.4

During a visit to Tokyo beginning on Friday, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon hinted that British combat aircraft may deploy to Japan for training with the Japanese Self-Defence Forces in the near future. Alternatively, Japanese forces would be invited by Britain to deploy to Europe to participate in NATO exercises.

With North Korea having claimed this month to have detonated their first hydrogen bomb, the Defence Secretary was quick to add that any deployment to Japan by RAF jets was not in response to any regional threat but rather would be to help;

  …significantly deepen defence cooperation between [the] two nations.

Any deployment to Japan by British combat aircraft will almost certainly face strong political opposition both internationally and at home. Japan and China are currently in a state of cold war regarding the ownership of the Senkaku Islands which is currently under Japanese administration. With the UK and China having recently completed a series of economic agreements, a British military presence in Japan could be seen as London siding with Tokyo which in turn could threaten those agreements.

The deployment and possible intervention in the far east would also face heavy opposition from an increasingly pacifist opposition in the British Labour Party. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has recently completed a reshuffle of his shadow cabinet that has seen a greater number of anti-military factions take prominent positions. Along with the Scottish National Party they would almost certainly criticise any military deployment to the region

The Nepal-Chinook Debacle – Just why did the Nepalese turn away RAF help?

RAF CHinook HC.2 helicopterIt has been a story worthy of a Monty Python sketch. At great expense the Royal Air Force managed to deploy three heavy-lift Chinook helicopters to India in order to conduct rescue operations in neighbouring Nepal which suffered two very powerful earthquakes in April and May 2015 resulting in the deaths of some 8,000 people with hundreds of thousands homeless.

Ready to come to the aid of Nepal the air and ground crews of the three heavylift helicopters found themselves actually forbidden from flying operations over the disaster zone. Left stranded in India the Ministry of Defence finally pulled the plug on the operation and on May 15th they began to be brought home without flying a single mission.

So just what caused the Nepalese to turn away British help? Here are some of the possible reasons;

  1. The official Nepalese reason.
    The Chinook is a large and powerful aircraft. Its twin main rotors create a large downdraft and it was feared that this downdraft might cause further damage to the already weakened buildings thus endangering more lives. That’s what the Nepalese told the RAF and indeed the world’s press who took an almost bemused approach to the story. There is some truth to these fears and certainly had the aircraft undertaken missions in to Nepal then precautions would have to be taken but this doesn’t explain why the aircraft was refused to fly entirely. The Chinooks could have still moved large amounts of personnel and material around the country in support of the aid effort without coming in to close proximity to the danger zones where they could cause a problem. Interestingly the Nepalese government’s official reason later changed to [No.2].
  2. Overcrowded skies.
    Another more logical explanation could be that Nepal simply couldn’t handle any more aircraft in its airspace. In the days following the earthquake the international community flooded the tiny country with aircraft and humanitarian aid which actually caused the country’s main airport to shut down for several hours because it physically lacked the space on the tarmac to handle the military and civilian traffic. In an interview with Sky News after the decision to call the helicopters back to the UK was announced the Nepalese Prime Minister explained that this was the real reason the helicopters were refused permission to fly. It does still raise the question of why they didn’t fly any mission at all as surely some situation would have arisen where the Chinooks could have been of use especially as UN aid agencies repeatedly asked for more helicopters during the course of the whole affair.
  3. The Chinese angle.
    It has been reported in the west that China became quite anxious about the number of foreign military aircraft and troops operating in Nepal following the earthquake and put pressure on the little country to refuse certain countries from sending any more. Although not confirmed by Chinese or Nepalese sources the recent war of words between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan does support the idea that the Chinese were watching western military operations in Nepal very closely. India too has also been accused of not being happy with the number of foreign militaries in Nepal despite their humanitarian mission.
  4. The prosecution of Lieutenant Colonel Kumar Lama.
    Some political observers have speculated that Nepal refused the British Chinooks in protest over the trial of Nepalese Army Lieutenant Colonel Kumar Lama at the Old Bailey in London which began in February of this year. Lieutenant Colonel Lama is accused of torturing two Maoist rebels in 2005; accusations he strongly denies. He was arrested in East Sussex in 2013 which soured UK-Nepalese relations as questions over whether Britain had the right to charge him for the crime or not were legitimate. With international law stating that any country can put someone on trial for torture it was decided by the Crown Prosecution Service to go ahead with the trial which is currently adjourned until August. The problem with this theory is that while the Chinooks were barred from flying RAF C-17 Globemaster IIIs and Hercules C.4 cargo aircraft repeatedly flew to the country bringing in supplies and repatriating westerners.

Whatever the real reason for the refusal to allow the Chinooks to fly one question remains above all others and that concerns whether or not the RAF, MoD or Foreign Office ever consulted the Nepalese government before deploying the aircraft in the first place? It is also curious that Britain was the only country who had assets deployed to the region that were refused to use them especially since Britain was one of, if not the, largest suppliers of aid with the UK sending around £65 million worth in the first month after the first earthquake.