December 10th 1899 – “Black Week” in South Africa

The Second Anglo-Boer War (sometimes referenced simply as the Boer War in the UK although there was an earlier conflict fought between 1880 and 1881) was fought between the British Empire in Africa and the Boers, a combined force from the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State. The Boer Republics declared war on Britain on October 11th 1899 after years of escalation and fears of Britain attempting to annex their territories for their gold and diamond deposits. The war would last until May 31st 1902 with a British victory and the absorption of their defeated foe’s lands in to the British Empire.

In 1899, Britain was overconfident regarding the state of her imperial security in the south African region and as such was woefully under-prepared for when the Boers struck. The Boer forces moved through much of the sparsely defended countryside while laying siege to the fortified British positions in towns like Kimberley and Ladysmith.

Then in one disastrous week beginning on December 10th 1899, the British Army suffered three devastating defeats by the forces of the Boer Republics. This week would become known as “Black Week”. The first came at Stormberg where Sir William Gatacre’s exhausted forces were beaten after undertaking a night march through heavy rain.

Second 2nd Anglo Boer War South Africa Black Week 1899 1902The next day on December 11th, an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley was also defeated by Boer forces at Magersfontein. Among the 1,000 British casualties at Magersfontein was Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope CB CMG whose loss exacerbated the sense of disaster regarding the battle in Africa and back home.

On the following Friday, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC GCB GCMG was defeated attempting to relieve the town of Ladysmith. The battle at Colenso cost over 1,000 British casualties and forced Redvers in to retreat. This defeat brought an end to the “Black Week” and proved a wake-up call to the British who began a massive build-up of reinforcements.

There were several factors that led to these disasters. Firstly, the British forces in Africa were used to fighting rebel tribesmen armed with spears rather than a well disciplined force armed with equivalent weapons to themselves. The British also struggled to organise themselves effectively beyond the immediate battlefield which meant opportunities to take advantage of weaknesses in the Boer lines were missed. Finally, the Boers were fighting in territory they had grown up in whereas much of the British force consisted of troops brought in from across the Empire such as Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain itself.

All these lessons would be learned and through 1900 and 1901 the Boers would be beaten back until their final defeat in 1902.

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BBC Panorama – “Bandit Country” (1976)

An episode of the BBC series Panorama which aired in 1976 about the Royal Scots Battalion operating in South Armagh, Northern Ireland at that time.

September 9th 1939 – Blundering in to Belgium

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Belgium declared itself neutral in the opening days of the Second World War and took a very dim view on its territory being violated by the combatants either deliberately or accidentally. On September 9th 1939 with the war being just over a week old a flight of Royal Air Force Whitley bombers accidentally strayed in to Belgian territory and was intercepted by the Belgian Air Force.

Believing they were under attack the Whitleys defended themselves…

Read the full story in The Hostility of Neutrality.

What is the extent of British support to Ukraine?

Ukrainian troops (RT)

Ukrainian troops (RT)

We work to improve links between Ukrainian and British people and institutions. We support Ukraine’s EU aspirations and help increase positive change in the rule of law, economic reform, public administration and fight corruption. We work to improve energy security and energy efficiency, beat international crime and threats to international security.

British government statement regarding Britain’s relationship with Ukraine
Viewable at Gov.uk

Few countries in Europe have been as vocal in their support to Ukraine as the United Kingdom. In the wake of perhaps the most chaotic year the people of Ukraine have seen since the end of the Second World War the country suffered revolution, scandal, the loss of the Crimean peninsula and a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country with constant rumours of Russian regular forces fighting clandestinely on behalf of the rebels. Add to this the constant fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be happy with just annexing the Crimea and it paints a worrying picture of a situation that could spiral very rapidly out of control.

On February 24th 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain would be sending military advisors to Ukraine to aid the Ukrainian military in the fight against the rebels. This was in response to rumours and indeed some compelling evidence that Russian soldiers were at least training rebels in the Ukraine. Around 75 British military personnel were initially dispatched to the Ukraine where according to the UK government their primary function was to teach essential non-lethal skills which primarily revolve around combat first aid, logistics and intelligence gathering.

However the government did also admit in their February 24th statement that there would be an infantry based assessment program to determine what future training requirements the Ukraine armed forces may need to tackle the rebels in the east of the country. It is likely that these training requirements will be met in the upcoming Rapid Trident 2015 exercise to be held in the Ukraine at the end of July.

Britain’s support for Ukraine has understandably upset Moscow who responded in that typically Soviet way of flying bombers and sailing warships around the coastline of the United Kingdom. The British press continue to make sensationalist headlines regarding these operations by the Russian military but it has to be remembered that British forces have done and continue to do the same near Russian territory and interests. At present a force of RAF Typhoon FGR.4 combat aircraft are providing air defence duties on behalf of NATO for the Baltic States while in 2014 during the Crimean crisis Russian forces were watched very closely by RAF Sentry aircraft using its long range radar to look over the border at Russian activity. On the ground, British Challenger tanks deployed on exercise to Poland where British politicians made efforts to tell the world that the UK and NATO remains committed to protecting eastern Europe – put simply this was a warning to Moscow about having ambitions beyond Ukraine.

So just what is the extent of British support for Ukraine?

Training of Ukrainian government forces

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (army.mod.uk)

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (army.mod.uk)

According to official British government figures around 850 Ukrainian personnel have been retrained by British advisors since February. This figure is set to rise as in June 2015 Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that Britain’s retraining of Ukrainian forces would be stepped up to such an extent that 250 Ukrainian troops are scheduled to be retrained in August alone. It should be noted that these figures do not include the number of Ukrainians expected to receive additional training from British and international forces that will be participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2015 at the end of July. 

British advisors operate as part of four teams each of which is assisting the Ukrainian government forces in different ways.

  1. Medical Short Term Training Team.
    British forces are currently training combat medic instructors in the Ukraine on the basis that they then can train their own medics and thus increase the number of combat medics in the Ukrainian military fully trained to modern NATO standards. Extensive combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has meant the British armed forces are in a prime position to teach the most effective methods as well as pass on personal knowledge of administering first aid in a combat scenario.
  2. Logistics Short Term Training Team.
    This team’s role primarily revolves around the assessment of Ukrainian logistics operations on the ground and in the air and then assisting in identifying weaknesses before finally addressing those weaknesses. To the lay-person this may seem like a low priority but as combat experience has proven insurgent forces are very fluid in their movements and often live off the land in some way. Ukrainian government forces may not have that option especially when operating in a pro-rebel area where the local population may view them as the enemy. Therefore their logistics chain needs to be at the top of its game to keep the Ukrainian troops mobile and able to keep fighting while at the same time being able to evacuate wounded quickly and safely.
  3. Infantry Short Term Training Team.
    It has been repeatedly made clear that the British Army mission is non-combat however that does not mean that British advisor’s aren’t looking at the way the Ukrainian military has been engaged in the fighting. This team’s role is to look at how the Ukrainians are tackling the rebels directly and pass on knowledge gained from experience in Afghanistan to improve their combat effectiveness.
  4. Intelligence Capacity Building Short Term Training Team

This team’s primary goal is to provide tactical level analysis training aimed at making Ukrainian troops more proficient at analysing information and gathering intelligence to allow them to better understand their combat environment.

Material Support to Ukraine

Over the last year the UK has also provided personal protective equipment (PPE), winter fuel, medical kits, winter clothing and sleeping bags to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. On July 3rd 2015 a Royal Air Force Lockheed C-130J Hercules took off from the UK bound for Ukraine with a cargo of items requested specifically by the Ukrainian government to support their troops. The aircraft carried 1,000 individual battlefield First Aid Kits, 2,000 Mk.6 helmets and up to 54 helmet-mounted monocular night vision goggles (MNVGs) to improve the Ukrainians government forces’ ability to fight under the cover of night which is still something of a limiting factor for the rebels.

On the 13th of July the British government announced that it would be sending additional equipment in the form of 200 global positioning system (GPS) units, 220 hardened laptops, and a further 100 MNVGs. These items had been promised along with the equipment sent on the 3rd of July back in March but are yet to be delivered. The whole cost of Britain’s material support to Ukraine is currently listed as being in the £2 million range but this does include transportation and maintenance costs.

Additional Support

The above support is in addition to ongoing British involvement in helping to keep the country functional and thus reduce the effect the fighting has on the country. This includes providing;

  • Crisis management skills
  • Anti-corruption tactics
  • Defence reform to meet the challenge ahead
  • Improved strategic communications

Beyond Ukraine

The European Union continues to sanction Russia for its role in the Crimean crisis and the fighting in the east of Ukraine with the earliest they can be expected to be lifted at present being January 2016. This means that many financial assets Russian banks hold in the west have been withheld to put pressure on Putin’s economy.

It hasn’t all been one sided however as Putin has “retaliated” politically. Firstly, in his own country the west continues to become demonised in the eyes of the Russian people increasing mistrust and even hatred back to Cold War levels. Putin’s own particular dislike of Britain has seen his government voice its support to Argentina over the Latin American country’s claim on the Falkland Islands even to the point of possible arms negotiations which at one point included Sukhoi Su-24 low level strike aircraft. Meanwhile the Russian military itself continues to flex its muscles warning the west it will not be provoked with Russian aircraft making high speed passes over American warships in the Baltic.

The situation in the Ukraine is in many ways like a microcosmic replica of the Cold War; the two major sides fighting over a piece of land in the middle but training and equipping someone else to do the fighting all the while making claims, counter-claims and denials to one another. The actual fighting has largely ground down in recent months to a slow war of attrition and the relationship between Ukraine and its western supporters with Moscow continues to be frosty. On Friday July 17th the Ukrainians expelled Russia’s consul general from the Black Sea port of Odessa accusing him of “actions incompatible with diplomatic activity” which proves that despite efforts to establish a permanent ceasefire the air of hostility is still quite fresh.

Attack on the Río Iguazú

The Rio Iguaza

The Rio Iguazu

In the darkened early hours of the morning of May 22nd 1982, a pair of Sea Harriers of No.800 NAS made their run along the deck of the ageing carrier HMS Hermes before leaping off the ski-jump mounted on the foredeck and in to the air. Armed for a combat air patrol, they carried a pair of AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles under their outer wing pylons while tucked under the fuselage in two streamlined pods were a pair of 30mm ADEN cannons. Their patrol route took them over Choiseul Sound, a stretch of water north of East Falkland island. Unbeknown to the two British pilots but a solitary vessel draped in camouflage was already traversing this stretch of water hoping to use the poor early morning light for protection from British aircraft. It was the Argentine Coast Guard (Prefectura Naval Argentina) vessel the Río Iguazú under the command of Captain Prefectura Olemda.

Rio Iguaza

Rio Iguazu docked at Puerto Argentino (Port Stanley)

The Río Iguazú  was one of twenty Z-28-class patrol boats built for the Argentine Coast Guard by Blohm & Voss in Germany during the 1970s. 90ft in length she displaced just 65 tons and had a typical crew complement of 15 while armament comprised of two browning 12.7 machine guns and various small arms carried by the crew. The vessel was dispatched along with her sister-ship the Islas Malvinas to the Falklands on April 11th still resplendent in their immaculate white paint schemes denoting that they were maritime security vessels. They arrived at Puerto Argentino (the Argentine occupational name for the Falklands capital Port Stanley) just after midnight on the 13th April and in doing so had violated the maritime exclusion zone established by the British following the Argentinian occupation of the islands on April 2nd. This meant that to the British the vessel was subject to attack without warning. On April 14th the crews of the two patrol boats began to paint over their white schemes with a brown and green camouflage pattern indicating that the Argentinians had every intention of using them in a combat role.

The Río Iguazú  and the Islas Malvinas both carried out a wide variety of duties around the islands as the British taskforce sailed south and these ranged from security missions, escort missions, radar picket duties as well as providing pilot services to ships entering Puerto Argentino (Port Stanley). After the taskforce reached the Falklands on May 1st 1982 the ships also undertook a combat search and rescue role for Argentine pilots shot down in battle with the British. This put the two vessels in combat quite early in to the campaign when on May 2nd while both vessels were searching for a downed FMA IA-58 Pucara crew they were spotted by a Royal Navy helicopter. Early Argentinian reports that the helicopter was a Sea King proved false and it was in fact a Lynx helicopter operating from HMS Ardent. The Argentinian vessels and the helicopter both exchanged machine gun fire before the door gunner in the Lynx was wounded forcing the aircraft to withdraw. The two vessels, fearing further attacks, quickly withdrew also.

On the 21st May the first British forces landed at San Carlos and the ground war for the islands began. Later that very night Captain Olmeda received word that his vessel was to transport two OTO Melara 105mm howitzers and 15 members of the Army from Puerto Argentino to Goose Green to bolster the defences there. Some reports claim that the vessel was also carrying parts for Pucara attack aircraft, the only Argentine attack aircraft to operate from the islands themselves, although this is disputed. The equipment and the soldiers (who effectively doubled the patrol boat’s usual complement to 30) were loaded aboard under the cover of darkness. Due to the size of the patrol boat and the weight of the equipment it was carrying the artillery pieces had to be laid down flat across the deck to prevent the Río Iguazú  from becoming top heavy. At 0430hrs on the morning of May 22nd the vessel slipped its moorings and set off for Goose Green via the Choiseul Sound.

Sea Harrier Rio IguazaAt 0820hrs two Sea Harriers, XZ496 flown by Lieutenant Hale and XZ460 flown by Lieutenant Commander Frederiksen of No.800 NAS, passed over the Choiseul Sound. The murky low light of the early morning over the Falklands can give the islands a rather oppressive feeling but it meant that on the dark grey waters below the wake from the camouflaged patrol boat drew a short white line on the sea visible from the air. Hale signalled his intention to attack while Frederiksen stayed high to protect him from any Argentine aircraft that might try to intercept them.

Argentine comic strip depicting the attack

Argentine comic strip depicting the attack

The Argentine crew saw the two specs in the air and knew they were under attack. They quickly manned their action stations including the two 12.7mm machine guns and prepared to defend themselves. Hale flew in low and switched to his two 30mm cannons before strafing the vessel at a rather shallow angle. The shells struck the rear of the ship striking electrical equipment and damaging the rudder. Several shells also passed right through the hull causing the vessel to take on water. The loss of electrical power inhibited the crews ability to start pumping out the water.

The two 12.7mm guns on the Río Iguazú , manned by Corporal Julio Omar Benitez and Senior Assistant Juan José Baccaro, retaliated firing rounds at Hale’s aircraft during his attacks. Benitez and Baccaro were both hit with Beccaro’s gun being destroyed by a 30mm shell. As the Sea Harrier finished its last attack the one remaining serviceable gun was manned by Corporal Ibáñez who fired shots at the Sea Harrier. In the confusion of the attack the Argentine crew saw the Sea Harrier fly behind a plume of smoke and believed that Ibáñez had scored a direct hit bringing the aircraft down. This proved not to be the case however and both Sea Harriers returned to HMS Hermes.

Captain Olmeda knew that he could not pump out the water seeping in from the holes in his vessel fast enough to remain afloat and so he gave the order to drive the vessel on to the shore at Button Bay. The patrol boat beached and its sharply raked hull left to fall onto its starboard side. Despite the ferocity of the attack only Corporal Benitez was killed in the incident while Bccaro was seriously wounded and a few others sustaining minor injuries. Considering the number of men crammed aboard the vessel it is a miracle the death toll was not higher and Olmeda’s decision to beach almost certainly saved the remainder.

Rio IguazuDespite the fact the patrol boat was taken out of the fight the howitzers onboard remained intact and the Argentinians wasted no time taking them off; they were afraid that a follow up attack might destroy the boat and its precious cargo completely. These guns were later used to defend Darwin from the advancing British before they were captured intact and used against their former owners. Efforts to refloat the Río Iguazú were impractical given the war situation and so Olmeda and his men abandoned the patrol boat at Button bay. The vessel was captured by the British who saw no use for it and so they too left it rot.

Then on June 13th a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter from HMS Penelope spotted the vessel unaware of its condition and believed it was an operational vessel. The Lynx fired a Sea Skua missile which struck the bridge destroying all of its internal equipment and damaging the superstructure beyond repair. This guaranteed that the vessel would never be returned to service. After the war the British towed the hulk off Button Bay and beached it for a last time at Goose Green. It was then broken up and sold for scrap. The name plaque of the Río Iguazú was presented to the Royal Navy and remains on display at the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm museum.

The Río Iguazú name plaque at Yeovilton in 2015

The Río Iguazú name plaque at Yeovilton in 2015


Rio Iguazu photo credits: Patrulleras Argentinas

Denying Dönitz the Dark

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Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant) Walter Köhler climbed the ladder from the control room of U-451 on December 22nd 1941. Climbing through the hatch atop the conning tower he was greeted by the calm night air of the western approach to the Strait of Gibraltar. The sound of the Type-VIIC U-Boat’s diesel engines chugged through the air as they charged the batteries used to power the submarine when submerged whilst under the cover of dark.

Karl Dönitz

Karl Dönitz

A World War II submariner’s life was often a singular one. There was very little news of the war outside the confines of the submarine’s hull and most crews didn’t know their country’s fortunes or failings until returning to port. One man in Nazi Germany’s U-Boat force who had an unparalleled view of the war however, at least compared to others in the service, was Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Karl Dönitz, the head of Germany’s submarines. The last quarter of 1941 had brought him cause for both celebration and concern. On November 13th one of his U-Boats, U-81, had torpedoed and sunk the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. As well as being a major combat loss for the British the vessel’s sinking was also a major hit on British morale.

This sapping of the British morale however would be shortlived because less than a month later the Japanese attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbour and despite being advised against it by many of his top leaders, Adolf Hitler decided to honour the almost entirely “paper” alliance with Japan and declare war on America also. With German forces heavily committed to the war in the Soviet Union it was seen by nearly everyone as an almost suicidal move. For Dönitz this meant his U-Boats were now subject to attack by American warships anywhere in the world but he was still confident in his men and their submarines.

In truth he had every right to be. His U-Boats were still an elusive enemy and were inflicting savage losses on the Allied effort to keep Britain in the fight. The convoy system had done much to improve the odds in the favour of the Allies but they were still taking losses especially when the U-Boats operated at night. Contrary to popular belief, World War II submarines spent around 80-90% of their time on the surface to make sure their batteries were fully charged for the attack or for when they in turn were attacked. This was always safest at night and it also gave the German lookouts more of a chance of finding a target. It was always easier for a U-Boat lookout to spot a ship’s large silhouette on the horizon than vice-versa because like an iceberg most of a surfaced U-Boat remains below the waves. A crew on a destroyer or an aircraft might be lucky enough to spot the wake of a surfaced U-Boat in the moonlight but the chances were very slim. The night had been the refuge of the U-Boat since the war began.

With that in mind, Walter Köhler spent most of his watch scanning the horizon looking for a target confident that U-451 was as good as invisible and they would have plenty of time to react should they come under attack from a roaming Allied warship. An aircraft flying overhead might spot the wake of the submarine but Köhler and his lookouts would hear any multi-engined aircraft before it had time to attack and thus allow them time to dive away. Even radar hadn’t helped the RAF and Royal Navy hunt U-Boats at night…yet. The problem was that while ASV radar could vector an aircraft to within a mile of the U-Boat the pilots often couldn’t see the target especially if the U-Boat had dived. The radar sets simply weren’t sensitive enough to give a truly precise location of a U-Boat for an effective attack.

U-451 was operating in a rich hunting ground with the Strait of Gibraltar acting like a bottleneck for Allied ships in to and out of the Mediterranean. Gibraltar itself had a very heavy British military presence including a large number of aircraft. As Köhler’s watch continued a strange sound appeared to come from the diesel engines. Maybe it was a cylinder misfiring?

“Flugzeug!”

One of the lookouts screamed at the top of his voice; aircraft! The British Swordfish torpedo-bomber, an almost antiquated design, with it’s single engine being drowned out by the U-Boat’s own diesel engines had sneaked up on the surfaced submarine. Its ASV radar had got them into the area and its crew had plotted the direction their target was travelling in and worked out where it would be when they arrived in it’s immediate vicinity. It was a mix of radar information coupled with a highly educated guess. The Captain of U-451 ordered the submarine to dive quickly and Köhler along with the three other lookouts rushed for the hatch. The buzz of the Swordfish’s engines was now a roar and he glanced upwards, his night-oriented eyes spying the Swordfish for the first time as it’s depth charges began to drop from under it’s wings.

Fairey Swordfish

Fairey Swordfish

The weapons detonated ahead of the submerging U-Boat mortally wounding the vessel. The explosions sent pillars of water in to the conning tower forcing the captain, unaware that his vessel was already doomed, to take the drastic action of closing the hatch before Köhler could get inside to prevent further flooding. The unfortunate German officer found himself alone outside of a sinking submarine in a torrent of swirling water and so with little choice left to him he leapt in to the sea and started swimming away so as to not get caught in the swell of the sinking U-Boat. Within a few minutes U-451 was gone although he was unsure if it had dived or had been destroyed. Indeed he would not know for certain the fate of his shipmates until some time later. It would be nearly an hour and a half before a British ship found the exhausted Köhler and took him prisoner. Under interrogation he displayed hostility towards U-451’s captain unaware that the captain’s order to close the hatch effectively saved Köhler’s life.

Reports of the attack filtered back to London and Berlin. While it has to be taken in to account that the Swordfish crew’s skill and a certain degree of luck had a part to play in the sinking, the possibilities ASV radar offered could not be ignored. Interestingly, the radar used by the Swordfish crew had not been designed for this role but in the following year new radar sets built specifically for hunting submarines at night meant that Dönitz’s U-Boats had lost the cover of the dark. This would eventually force the Germans to introduce primitive radar warning receivers to give the U-Boat crews advance notice but it was a short term solution and this resulted in the development of the snorkel to allow the U-Boat to charge it’s engines while remaining at periscope depth; a slow and frustrating process.

By the end of the war a U-Boat on the surface  could expect attack in either day or night from overwhelming Allied air power that had both a numerical and qualitative superiority. One final note; the Swordfish that sank U-451 was attached to No.812 NAS operating out of Gibraltar. The only reason the squadron was flying from there was because their carrier, Ark Royal, had been sunk by a U-Boat the previous month. The Swordfish crew had taken their revenge.