Britain’s Postwar Wars

The list of wars involving the UK since 1945 is long and chaotic. Looking at some of them especially the most recent does suggest some themes which are not especially encouraging when one considers the prospect of British involvement in Syria.

In the early post war period most of the conflicts Britain was involved in were either against expansion of communism (Greece and Korea) or else imperial entanglements. Greece and Korea had fairly clear objectives and the prospect of functional states existing in their aftermath; though Greece ended up with a military dictatorship subsequently and South Korea was left devastated by the war with American troops there to this day.

The other British post war wars tended to revolve around attempts either to keep or later to leave imperial possessions with varying degrees of political and military dignity. In general these were moderately successful for example in Kenya where the Mau Mau were militarily defeated and then the British left a few years later. Again there was usually some semblance of a plan in these cases which was usually to leave with a government at least moderately favourable to Britain – though very often the newly independent country became opposed to British interests shortly thereafter. Frequently the democratically elected new rulers also decided democracy meant one man one vote once and promptly abolished elections and the like whilst the British looked on impotently.

An exception to this polite cultured form of semi defeat was Suez which scarred British foreign policy for a generation at least. On this occasion an Anglo French force with Israeli help invaded Egypt to recapture the Suez canal which Egypt’s president Nasser had nationalised. This invasion was briefly militarily successful until the USSR offered military help to Egypt, the USA refused to help Britain and France and indeed behaved towards them in a militarily threatening fashion itself. This national humiliation resulted in the fall of Eden as premier, the decision to press ahead with an independent nuclear deterrent but a feeling that never again could Britain mount large scale military operations alone.

The later 1950s and 1960s were in some ways a golden age for post war British military power with state of the art weapons systems for the army, navy and airforce. All the while, however, this was undermined by some rather odd decisions on defence procurement which would have long term negative effects both on military ability and the defence industries.

This rather impressive military was studiously not used in major conflicts. Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the disaster which was Vietnam apart from British carrier born helicopters rescuing a few downed American airmen and rumours about SAS involvement (which was probably largely the Australian SAS). More markedly when Ian Smith’s Rhodesia declared UDI in 1965 Wilson pointedly refused to use military force to defeat the Rhodesian army and end the rebellion.

The idea that Britain could or would never again fight a war independently (or even with help) in the absence of an existential threat had significant currency in the 1960s and 1970s. That was changed by the Falklands War. When Argentina invaded the islands the 120 or so Royal Marines put up considerable resistance before surrendering to the overwhelming force before them – the standard post imperial pattern seemed to be playing out. What happened next took the whole world by complete surprise: a degree of surprise which we now fail to grasp. The Americans thought the British had no chance; many in the armed forces were also convinced it was impossible. In contrast the First Sea Lord Sir Henry Leach: Thatcher’s “Knight in Shining Gold Braid” proposed retaking the islands. The fact that the war went so well often hides some very good fortune for the British, some ill luck for the Argentineans but also the marked superiority of the British equipment and training.
The Argentinean army were conscripts but well trained: they were, however, rather poorly led in the land war and never advanced to attack the British. They also proved no match for British troops especially the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines. The Argentinean Navy was driven from the fight by the sinking if the Belgrano (they might easily have lost their aircraft carrier as well) as they had no effective answer to Britain’s nuclear powered attack submarines.

The Argentinean air force was the largest in the southern hemisphere, had modern French and Israeli planes and had been trained by the Israelis. They had the major disadvantage of being a long way from their bases especially after the iconic raid on Port Stanley’s airfield by the obsolescent Vulcan bomber supported by an almost endless circus of Victor refuelling tankers . Against the Argentinean air force the British had modern surface to air missiles but no one expected the Fleet Air Arm’s twenty subsonic Sea Harrier fighters (aided by the Royal Airforce’s ground attack Harriers) to deal with the French supplied Mirages and Israeli Daggers. The outcome has become something of defining British national legend as a mini Battle of Britain with the Sea Harriers almost totally destroying the Argentinean air force which still managed to sink several British ships. Not to detract from the Fleet Air Arm’s performance they were equipped with the latest American air to air missiles provided at Ascension Island.

The Falklands has become part of British national identity with myth and reality often blended. However, in military terms, stunning achievement as it was, the whole thing had an organised end game. Once the Islands were recaptured the Argentinean soldiers could be removed, the fleet stayed until the airfield could be repaired and RAF Phantoms dispatched which could defend the islands against further attack from what was left of the Argentinean naval and air forces. There was also a plan for long term defence with to this day a considerable number of combat troops, a squadron of modern Typhoon’s and a Royal Navy vessel always present along with the open secret that one of the Navy’s nuclear attack submarines (not the Trident ones) patrols the South Atlantic.

Papers recently made public show that Thatcher agonised personally about sending men (in those days it was till always men) to die in war and many of her cabinet had as young men fought in the Second World War. It is interesting that although she became increasingly jingoistic Thatcher did not commit British troops to foreign wars in the aftermath of her military victory.

She almost did in Kuwait but had fallen before Major had to commit British forces to combat in the First Gulf War. On this occasion again the British weapons and military personal were highly effective. Although the Americans were the dominant partner the Royal Air Force’s Tornados made a major contribution to destroying Iraq’s airfields and quite a number were shot down due to the low flying required. Supplemented by the aging Buccaneers they then attacked other targets with considerable success. Although the land campaign was brief again the British Challenger tanks proved far superior to the 1970s vintage Soviet equipment used by the Iraqis.

Again though the vital ingredient was a defined objective – getting Iraq out of Kuwait and the Kuwaitis were almost without exception supportive of this. In addition there was a commitment to long term defence against any future incursions. More than anything George H Bush’s decision to stick to the UN Resolution and pull back having liberated Kuwait stopped any Vietnam-esque quagmire.

The wars surrounding the gradual collapse of Yugoslavia ended up with limited Western intervention. The massacre at Srebrenica, and the failure of Belgium troops to protect the civilians resulted in late western intervention. When subsequently Kosovo declared independence from the rump Yugoslavia the British (by this time under Blair) and Americans again went to war. This operation was somewhat more problematic as they were supporting a breakaway entity which could be construed to be contrary to international law. Bigger problems came militarily from the Yugoslav army’s extremely effective air defence system. This meant the danger of planes being shot down. The Yugoslavs made fake tanks from wood which from the height the NATO planes flew at could not easily be distinguished from the real things. The number of real tanks etc. destroyed was very low. Furthermore the Americans supposedly radar invisible F 117 stealth fighters were tracked by the Yugoslav army’s modern Russian radars and one was successfully shot down (as interesting aside British ship radars were also reportedly able to track F 117s).

The NATO response to this was to bomb Belgrade’s infrastructure which resulted in Yugoslavia surrendering. The aftermath was, however, more problematic with a bizarre episode whereby the Americans ordered British soldiers to overpower a small Russia. The British troops (led by James Blunt) were ordered not to do this by British General Mike Jackson with the famous line “I’m not having my soldiers responsible for starting World War III.” The end result was less than satisfactory with Kosovo being essentially ethnically cleansed of Serbs and Roma and there has been significant lawlessness in Kosovo. Here although the war was victorious it demonstrated a lack of long term planning and also that Western military equipment is not as all powerful as was thought after the first Gulf War.

Buoyed by this success Blair intervened in Sierra Leone. There extremely violent rebels with Liberian help were in danger of taking over the country complete with rape, chopping limbs off civilians etc. Here British military intervention rapidly brought an end to the insurgency and proved popular with the local population.

These wars seemed to stoke Blair’s apparent fondness for military intervention: indeed critics have suggested that unlike Thatcher who agonised about causing deaths Blair saw committing British military forces to action as an opportunity to “prove himself” and even as a test of virility or machismo.

Blair soon had his chance after the 9/11 attacks. He supported the western intervention against the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Those who knew their history might have pointed out that the British have a history of defeats in Afghanistan. The British ended up in Helmand province supposedly stabilising it in an operation which was to be peace keeping.This rapidly proved a dangerous delusion. British troops were killed by road side bombs and in combat. Frequently they were stuck in isolated bases under frequent attack. Successes seems temporary and the attempts at nation building at times seemed to degenerate into a series of engagements more akin to Rourke’s Drift than the presented plan of building bridges, schools, dams etc.

Eventually the British were relieved by the Americans. The Americans seem to have been full of admiration for the British troops but fairly incredulous at their inadequate numbers of troops and amounts of equipment. By most analyses of the situation the British involvement in Helmand was a military defeat similar to that of the Rhodesian army in the Bush war or the Americans in Vietnam. Like those defeated armies they won every battle or engagement they fought but ended up losing the war. The reasons seem to have been lack of men and equipment, lack of political commitment and lack of a proper exit strategy yet an unwillingness to stay indefinitely.

A similar debacle played out over a shorter timeframe in Iraq. The Second Gulf War was the most controversial of recent times. Space does not allow for any analysis of the legality of the war or suchlike though it has scarred British foreign policy ever since.

The initial invasion was extremely successful – even more so than the First Gulf War. The British were given the safe and easy to control area around Basra where they started patrolling in berets and were joined by Blair for a photo opportunity. Unfortunately there were 1500 troops to control a city the size of Birmingham. Attacks on the British became commonplace mainly by the police the British army had helped arm. British military police officers were killed in an attack on a police station. Eventually the attacks reduced but this was because the British were withdrawn to a compound at the airport from which they were harassed by mortar fire. Like in Afghanistan they ended up being rescued by a much larger American force which with help from the Iraqi army swamped the area and disarmed the police.

This was again a military defeat – even more so than Afghanistan. The reasons for defeat were much the same: inadequate equipment maybe but centrally far too little of it; too few troops; a lack of understanding of the situation they were entering by the politicians sending them and the lack of an exit strategy.

These wars (especially Iraq) helped end Blair’s premiership. Cameron when he became Prime Minister seemed somewhat less keen on war. However, the Libyan uprising against Colonel Gadaffi was going to be crushed by his forces until the cry that something must be done became loud. On this occasion the British and French decided to solve this country’s problems. They launched repeated air strikes (avoiding ground troops) which tipped the balance against Gadaffi’s forces. There then followed the obligatory photo opportunity of Cameron wandering around a liberated city followed by a descent into anarchy. On this occasion the error of not having enough troops and as such their military defeat was cunningly avoided by having no troops and an arguably even more rapid descent into anarchy. Again there was no exit strategy – indeed there had been no real entry strategy but a decision that one side were the “goodies”, support for them and bemusement when our new found allies turned out to be no better (possibly more dangerous to us) than our enemies.

It looks as though the RAF will be sent to bomb Syria with a state of the art missile system and a few ageing Tornado strike aircraft. Again it looks as though we have neither an entry nor exit strategy. We will avoid British soldiers dying by sending none. Our enemies (IS) seem pretty clearly enemies. However, their most competent opponents seem to be the Syrian army who two years ago we were planning to bomb whilst our new friends appear to include groups allied to Al Qaeda and seem illusory at best.

Once again we seem to have equipment which may or may not be adequate in quality but clearly inadequate in quantity, a shifting cast list of allies / opponents and a very limited commitment to seeing the war won let alone a long term strategy for stabilisation. As ever, however, military action is in our national interest and “something must be done. Maybe this time it will be different but the precedents are far from encouraging.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.