James has a keen interest in military history, backed with experience as a TA reservist and a 17th century re-enactor. He has designed and run several face to face social games and is the editor of MilMud, the journal of the CLWG game design group. He is currently working on a book on the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution.
So my military experience is minimal, almost three years as a part-time member of a UOTC twenty five years ago. I came across Paul’s problem then, but as the 19 year old. Since then I’ve had a moderately successful career in civil service delivery and leadership roles. I went through a graduate management trainee programme and at 29 took over a passport office managing people twenty years older than me, and with their entire career in passport operations. So I’ve largely seen this problem from the 22 year old graduate perspective.
What does the Army need?
I suppose part of the problem is that the army prepares for lots of contingencies. It can’t see the future, so it tries to provide personnel with a variety of skills and experiences that it can adapt to the challenges of the day. Generally it’s pretty good at it.
As I see it the British Army tries to provide the following from its personnel
General officers capable of commanding Divisions and Corps in an all arms mechanised war
Mid level officers (Captains and Majors) with deep expertise in specific arms to provide staff and training roles
Highly specialised SNCOs that can train an army, and can also train the officers
Soldiers that can turn their hand to a variety of roles, including light infantry, aid to the civil power, full on mech war, etc.
You’ll notice in the list that there isn’t really a need for Lieutenants. They’re a feeder grade for the officers that understand their arm. In turn those officers become the trainees for Generals.
There are two important groups of personnel, both of whom typically have 10-20 years of experience and a deep command of their area of expertise. The SNCO/WO group are unrivaled in the mechanics and administration of warfare. They know every single soldier role in their arm (from direct personal experience) and also what all the officers up to Major should be doing.
The other group are the Colonels and Generals. They’ve mastered integration and using multiple arms to complement each other.
Both these roles can’t be trained for overnight, or even over a couple of years in peacetime. Most of those that enlist will never do either role, either because they don’t have the right stuff, or because they get lost because they aren’t recognised early enough and given the right postings to develop their talent.
How is this different elsewhere?
So the army tries to anoint people as potential generals when they join up. It does this through the commissioning process. Other organizations do similar things with graduate and management trainee programmes. Where these differ is that looser hierarchies allow more room to manoeuvre. Also people can shift jobs to get promoted or acquire skills when they choose. This is not an option for soldiers.
In a civilian role you’d almost never face the problem of the 22 year old geography graduate telling the veteran HR manager what to do, unless it was the boss’s kid. Even then you could appeal to the boss.
What Could the Army Do?
Probably many things. Here are some ideas maybe worth chewing over:
Don’t let 2Lt/Lt have command over anyone with more than two stripes. (i.e. acknowledge that Lieutenants are trainees and that Sergeants and Warrant Officers are not)
Give WOs rank equivalence to Lt (OF2). This is a small change but signals clearly to the junior officer that they should listen and learn from their SNCOs.
Do away with WO in the service support side (like HR) and commission experienced SNCOs to directly command the functions. Arguably you could also refuse to accept 2Lts into those arms, send them to the infantry instead.
Stop commissioning people straight out of school/uni. Make them do a year as a private, a year as a corporal and then do the commissioning course. Also don’t allow people to do AOSB until they’ve got a stripe up.
I went to see Dunkirk with my 11 year old son last week. I’d read some reviews beforehand and chose the IMAX version. It’s an amazing movie that I think will bear watching again. I’ll try to avoid spoilers.
The movie focuses on three stories, one on Land (over a week), one on the Sea (a day) and in the Air (an hour). The three stories are very personal perspectives and are interwoven, coming together near the end of the movie.
There’s no overview, or explanation of how the British and French Armies ended up at Dunkirk. We never see the Germans, other than a couple of ME109s, a Heinkel bomber and a flight of Stukas.
There’s also almost no blood and definitely no gore. Nolan is on record as saying that he consciously avoided effects that distracted viewers from the story. Throughout the Dunkirk movie men are shot and blown up, but the casualties are very much people lying around and not the bloody lumps of meat we’ve got used to seeing since Saving Private Ryan.
Dunkirk on Land
The key viewpoint is an unnamed private soldier played by Harry Styles. He soon collects a couple of friends while on the beach. There’s very little dialogue, the story speaks of the desperation and the frantic attempts to escape. What dialogue there is keeps to the point, and there are no explanations.
The soldiers first attempt to get a ship is through picking up a wounded man on a stretcher. They’ve seen that the wounded are getting priority, and when some stretcher bearers are killed in a Stuka attack Styles and his friend pick up the wounded man and run down the mole. They make the ship, but are ordered back off to collect more wounded.
Each further attempt to escape meets with obstacles, they end up on a destroyer which is promptly torpedoed. They get back to the beach for another go. We’re left in suspense on whether or not they will escape.
Dunkirk by Sea
This strand follows one of the small boats from Devon. The crew are a father and his two sons. The youngest is 15 and jumps on as the boat pulls away. En route they pass the stern of a sunken ship with a shivering second lieutenant sitting on it. The stricken 2Lt clearly had a bad case of battle fatigue as they would have called it then. Not surprisingly given what he’d have gone through. It’s very well treated.
The little ship passes more and more evidence of the scale of the evacuation as it sails to Dunkirk. As it gets closer the smoke and fire on the horizon becomes clearer, and air attacks on other ships get seen.
Dunkirk in the Air
Probably the more spectacular element is the air component. This shows a flight of three spitfires setting out on a combat air patrol over the evacuation routes. In the first scene they’re in we get a pilot pov dogfight where a ME109 goes down. Then the triumphant pilot gets shot out of the sky without even seeing his attacker.
Several more dogfights occur, and eventually we see the little ship under the spitfires as the threads are tied together.
The last part of the air component is the most spectacular. A fantastically well shot descent without fuel, and some frantic hand cranking of undercarriage, to land on the beach.
What this aspect of the movie does tell us is that the RAF were there and that they made a difference, even if they weren’t often seen from the beaches.
Over the last 48 hours I’ve seen a lot of people calling for us to just intern the terrorist sympathisers now. The knee jerk reaction followed the Manchester bombing and repeated after Saturday night’s drive by stabbings at London Bridge. The feeling was that if the security services knew who these people were they should just arrest and intern them now.
When to Intern?
The UK last resorted to internment in 1971 in Northern Ireland. It backfired spectacularly. We’ve apparently considered it a couple of times since then, for example in 1990 we considered interning Iraqis in the UK after Kuwait was invaded. We’ve also considered it a few more times since then. There are probably some situations where internment is a good idea.
With a well defined group to intern
Where there is popular support for the process
Where there is the capacity to sort those that we need to intern from those that are benign
Where we can safely contain all those that pose a threat in as short a time as possible
Who to Intern
The major problem with interning Irish Republicans in NI in the early 1970s was that we didn’t have a reliable list. We asked the NI government to tell us who to intern. They were part of the problem, and they gave us a list of people involved in protests. The handful of actual IRA people on it were tipped off by sympathisers and escaped the round up. The fact that the community knew we’d botched it made it easy for the IRA to recruit because the Catholic community? could see we were acting against them.
This might not happen if we used people on watch lists for good reasons. However we’d need to double check them all before moving to arrests. We’d also need to guard against grudge denunciations. The last thing we’d want is to help the terrorists recruit. Getting this right is a very had problem, and one that officials are wary of.
Political Support to Intern
Right now this is probably easy. The media have coverws suggestions that we intern terrorist suspects positively?, and there are recent incidents of terrorism that back these up.
Where this gets harder is in ensuring that safeguards for our freedom as a country are maintained. Magna Carta is a fundamental principle of our Constitution. No-one should be detained without trial, and acting to intern suspected terrorists cuts against this. It has been fiercely debated? in Parliament several times in the last fifteen years.
Currently we can hold terrorist suspects for up to 14 days without charge, and make temporary orders to restrict their freedom (TPIMs). The TPIM orders are house arrest, and we’ve currently got six people affected by them. That’s about 1% of the publicly admitted watch list (there are apparently 500 people being actively watched).
Even if Parliamentary approval was given for a more interventionist approach we still need to decide the process for internment. What standard of evidence will we apply to deciding what constitutes grounds to intern someone? Clearly this needs to be less than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. If we could meet that then we could charge them with conspiracy and other offences and put them on trial. We do this for a couple of hundred people each year, about 60% get convicted.
There are two other standards in play, there’s reasonable suspicion (probable cause to Americans) and the balance of probabilities. The trouble with the former is that it will throw up a lot of false positives. The latter needs us to have more information, and brings the opposite risk of false negatives. It’s a hard problem, but presumably soluble in the same way the security services currently make tricky decisions about resource allocation.
Capacity to Intern
If we can work out who to intern, and get buy-in, how do we go about it? For a start we’d probably want to look at the lessons from Operation Demetrius, and probably also operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rounding up suspects is labour intensive. You don’t just send a couple of coppers out with a van and a list of addresses. There’s an intelligence operation to find and fix the suspects. This needs to be followed up with as many simultaneous? raids as possible. Each of those raids needs 10-20 police or soldiers to conduct. They’ll need to secure the area and then a small team will need to effect entry and secure the suspect. Given the terrorist angle they need to be prepared for some suspects to be armed, so they all need to overmatch anything suspects might have.
If we decided to intern all 500 of those being actively watched then we’d need about 7,500 police and army to deal with it. There would also be a need for additional investigation staff to directly interview and prepare cases against those that were arrested.
Once word gets out there will be a backlash. Some suspects will get away. Some relatives or friends of those arrested will protest. Others might even join in. 1971 saw rioting and shootings in the wake of the arrests. Any actual terrorists that escape will no doubt launch attacks. The recent attacks have mostly been low resource, knives and vehicles, so any competent adult could launch one on a few minutes notice.
Where do we intern
Even if we find them all, where do we put them? The best place is in a prison where they can be segregated prior to being interviewed and decisions being made about their release or continued detention. One of the lessons from Demetrius was that putting together potential sympathisers with actual terrorists helps them to recruit. So you’d want to avoid that. That means a period of isolation from other internees until they’re graded either for charge, release or extended detention.
That said, UK prisons seem to have capacity issues. So who would you release early to make space?
Cyber warfare has been on my mind for a few weeks, even before the WannaCryptor incident. It’s been there because I’ve been looking at the innovation context for a digital service I’ve been designing as part of my T317 end of module project. That service is for government, and one of the risks is that someone will try to attack or subvert it.
The other thing that has brought cyber warfare to my head is the forthcoming general election in the UK. There are signs that both the UK referendum on the EU and the US election night have been affected by cyber warfare.
What is Cyber Warfare?
The popular view is hackers in a basement tracking people, bringing down other computer networks and stealing money. They do impossible things with a few clicks of the keyboard. Taking over CCTV cameras, planting data, or stealing it. The black hat guys use viruses, phishing and social engineering to empty your bank accounts and steal your life.
Personally I don’t buy that image. Bits of it certainly happen. There are a whole load of criminals out there looking to make a profit out of people. But it isn’t as easy or as glamourous as TV would have us believe.
Cyber isn’t Warfare
I see Cyber as a buzzword. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Like a lot of other things it has become much easier to do at scale with the spread of the internet. Warfare is the domain of the military, and implies state sponsored violence from at least one of the parties. Even in small insurgencies the insurgents are acting for political reasons in what they see as their national interest. As that famous Dead PrussianCarl von Clausewitz put it, war is the continuation of politics with other means. So for something to be defined as warfare there needs to be some sort of political dimension to it.
Cyber on the other hand is more of a police and intelligence services matter. Sure, malicious effects on certain systems can cause deaths and injuries. However it’s more about information and criminality than state sponsored violence or politics. There are daily cyber incidents, and they are almost all criminal in intent.
As I see it Cyber has the following potential components
Defence against threats (as multi-pronged as the threat landscape)
Information operations to persuade people to a point of view (AKA propaganda)
Intelligence gathering, both passive and active
Disruption of physical infrastructure – e.g. stuxnet style attacks, also control of things attached to the internet (IoT is scary)
Facilitation of criminality, whether stealing data/money or supplying contraband or illicit goods or services online
WannaCryptor Wasn’t Warfare
While the details aren’t entirely clear on this incident I think there’s enough data to be certain that WannaCryptor wasn’t an attempt at cyber warfare. I’m pretty sure about that because both of the sheer scale of the infection and the ransomware payload. If it had been political then it woul have been more closely targetted, and there would have been a message attached to it (other than give me some bitcoin). WannaCryptor infected hundreds of thousands of machines across 150 countries. That’s pretty much all countries developed enough to be able to access the internet. If you watch the video of the spread it goes round the world with office hours. It’s more Pandemic than planned campaign.
There’s an outside chance it was planned, but I doubt that it was intended to operate at the scale it did. It would need a top level authority to create that level of impact to deflect suspicion from it being state sponsored. There’s a high likelihood that several affected states will be putting significant effort into tracking down the culprits. Not all will be looking to put them in front of a court.
This is an area that should really be in our own hands, in much the same way that we close our doors and windows at home. It’s down to all of us to recognise the threats and act to prevent them. Clicking on links in emails is the digital equivalent of flashing a wallet in a dodgy part of town. Sensible people just don’t do that.
The secret of Cyber, or Digital, or IT, or computers, is simply that they are communication devices. Anyone can talk to anyone else directly. There’s no border, no internal policing, nothing to stop a dodgy person directly contacting you. So everything needs defending directly. (See Castles in the Sky for my poem about security in the cloud). Every moment of every day carries the risk of compromise. Cyber is like a permanent counterinsurgency, except with viruses, phishing and social engineering in place of IEDs, ambushes and informers.
Cyber as a buzzword
I’ve claimed there’s no such thing as cyber warfare. There are parallels with real warfare though, and cyber operations can, and do, support military campaigns. That doesn’t make it a military thing though. Civilians and intelligence services support military campaigns too. There’s probably also a need for a civilian equivalent of the reserves for the cyber security people, whether defensive or offensive.
Security is millennia old. IT security is decades old. Cyber is simply the latest buzzword to make it sound sexy and attract funding. That’s a good thing, because it can affect us all directly and indirectly. So we all need to pay it some heed.
Security isn’t hard. It just needs you to think about it, and ask questions. Most importantly, don’t let the fear grip you. Fear makes us react irrationally.
My ‘cyber’ credentials
There are a lot of instant cyber experts out there. I’m not one of them. I’ve been working for the UK government in IT related roles back to 1995. This has included being part of the Departmental IT Security Committee when we did Y2K and being on the forefront of designing and building secure digital systems for part of the UK Home Office. I’m a professional member of the British Computer Society. There’s a lot about IT security that I don’t know, I look to the experts I work with on that, but I definitely know more than most of the media pundits you’ll have read recently.
Mass mobilisation for a world war level conflict would need the country to repeat what it did for WW1 & WW2.
Discussion I’ve read on twitter amongst those interested and knowledgable about defence (a mixture of serving officers, military historians and political observers) suggests that Britain has a real problem with the level of defence spending and decaying of capability for mass mobilisation to support a world war level conflict.
Years of small wars on the back of the 1990s ‘peace dividend’ has prevented major equipment changes. The British Army is still using many of the same armoured vehicles that it had in 1989. They’ve had internal upgrades, and improved control systems. The lighter vehicles have fared better because there were urgent operational requirements for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Britain was in a similar state to now in the early 30s. After WW1 we didn’t want to go to war again. The army was small and didn’t have any of their kit replaced. With few exceptions in 1933, when Hitler came to power, the British Army was using the same kit that it had ended the world war with in 1918. The recognition of the nazi threat lead to an abandoning of the ten year rule (where we funded our armed forces on the assumption there would be no major war for at least ten years).
Appeasement was a policy not of keeping Hitler happy, but of buying us time to re-equip and expand our armed forces in preparation for mass mobilisation. Through the late thirties a massive programme of expansion and re-equipment went on. In 1938 Britain spent 7.4% of GDP on Defence , which is three and a half times what we are spending now. This doubled in 1939 to 15.3% – not all of which was after the declaration of war in September. By 1941 it was above 50% and it stayed there for the duration.
The nazis were seen as an existential threat, so the public were willing to support mass mobilisation for world war two and accept the sacrifice of additional taxes to pay for the war. Income tax doubled from a basic rate of 25%, which is similar to the current level. I think it would be fair to say that Britain could only afford mass mobilisation for world war three if we could see an existential threat to the country.
Without an existential threat, today we could field one armoured Division with air and naval support. We can’t move it anywhere in a hurry without hiring civilian cargo vessels. Against certain countries that division would be an annoyance, but it certainly wouldn’t stop them doing what they wanted, just impose a stiff price.
Once it was destroyed, we’d be at their mercy. Either that or we’d be strongly considering our nuclear options. That said, anything that caused us to commit the 21st century British Expeditionary Force would almost certainly trigger the NATO mutual defence clauses. So there would be more than just the UK involved.
What does 2% Buy in Defence?
Britain is signed up to the NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on Defence. Through some accounting adjustments we spend almost exactly 2% including some overseas aid. The actual defence budget of £38bn for MoD is likely to be about 1.9% of GDP this year. Almost 40% of that is spent on acquiring equipment, notably the aircraft carriers, trident submarines and F-35s. Between these three huge ticket items there isn’t much capital left.
As at 1 April 2016, the British Army had a trained strength of 79,750 regular personnel and 23,030 reserves, lower than it has ever been since before the start of the 20th Century. The Royal Navy and RAF both had slightly over 32k each, for a total armed forces trained strength of 168k personnel (very few of whom are reserves).
MOD reported that in 2015-16 it spent the following on each of the services:
You’ll notice that the totals don’t add up to the whole Defence budget, but that’s because I’ve left out the civilian elements and the long-term strategic acquisitions.
Mass Mobilisation of Our Armed Forces
There’s two ways to look at this, one is a simple uprating of what we currently have by the amount of extra money we might be able to spend and decide whether that would be effective. The other is to look at what we might need and then see if we can afford it.
For either of these tests you need to have an adversary in mind. When you get into it, quality and will to fight affect the answer. It’s not completely about raw numbers. Maybe someone somewhere has done the work to compare the economic strengths of warring powers and what that tells you about outcomes. I doubt it’s clear cut that the bigger economy always wins, but as a general rule it works.
What could we afford?
Britain is currently the 5th biggest spender on Defence worldwide, and our economy is 5th or 6th dependent on currency fluctuations and Brexit impacts. So there aren’t many countries that ought to be able to scare us, even if we can’t field enough troops to round up their military.
The UK GDP in 2016 is around £1.9 trillion. During WW2 we spent over 50% of GDP on the war effort. We taxed people more, borrowed heavily, and the economy also grew significantly from the war expenditure. I’m not sure that we could quite get to 55% on Defence, we’d still have the welfare state to fund, albeit some of it could be diverted to the war effort. We could also up the total tax share from around 37% (according to Treasury’s analysis the public sector spent £713bn in 2015-16) to match that WW2 55%. That could bring Defence spending to 20% of GDP.
Other sources of funding:
The Welfare budget The UK spends about £250bn on welfare, over a third of our public expenditure. Most of it is on pensions and disability, neither of which would reduce as a result of a world war. We do spend £3bn of it on unemployment benefits, and another £27bn on Housing Benefit, both of which might come down a little if there was mass mobilisation. We could perhaps squeeze 0.1% of GDP out of the UK welfare budget.
The NHS At £162bn annually this is the next largest chunk of public expenditure. At best some of the NHS will become defence medical assets, and the people will transfer to support those we’ve mobilised. Not to mention the inevitable casualties. In practice we’d probably need to spend more on the NHS, or make some really tough choices about priorities.
Borrowing – in 2015-16 we spent £45bn on debt interest. If we borrowed enough to capitalise the interest for the duration of the war then we could add this amount to Defence budget.
Efficiency Gains If the rest of government was asked to cut around 10% of their budgets then we could perhaps add another 3% of GDP to the war budget.
So where does all this get us to? About twelve times the current defence budget, so we could significantly increase the size of our armed forces. On a straight multiple that would give us about two million all ranks from mass mobilisation. However I expect more of them would go into the army than either the RN or RAF for the simple reason that it will take longer to produce ships and aircraft to support that level of expansion than it would to produce army equipment.
Britain’s approach to World Wars
Historically we have form. Britain doesn’t maintain its armed forces between major wars. We keep a training cadre and enough to cope with the various small wars we get involved in. When the big war happens we do mass mobilisation of reserves and recruit anyone we can find. Typically it takes 18 months for us to form the million plus citizen armies we need to stand alongside our allies.
Many people (especially civilian politicians and voters) probably consider the idea of a major war very unlikely. We felt the same in the 1920s. Further, they probably also consider that if one did start that it would go nuclear (or find a diplomatic peace) well before we could train and equip the recruits to expand our armed forces. During the Cold War this was almost certainly true.
What it means is that we’ve given up on necessary infrastructure to do mass mobilisation. We’ve stopped building military aircraft and tanks in the UK. We’d also struggle with a lot of other equipment, like small arms. Our wider manufacturing base is also shot, so the scope for repurposing factories to scale up production is also limited.
As an example, the British Army writes off small arms on a 10 to 15 year period. That means that normal production will be about a tenth of the current size of the armed forces need. So if everyone needs a rifle then we need 200k rifles for the regular and reserve. Let’s say we have a factory that makes 20k rifles a year, just to replace worn out stocks. When you scale up your armed forces through mass mobilisation to 2 million trained personnel then you suddenly need to build 1.8m extra rifles in under six months, and increase replacement levels to cover expected losses from accidents and combat.
We’d also need to find plant, machinery and skilled people to set up factories to produce gun barrels, armour, heavy vehicles, jet engines, aircraft and the complex electronics that make them all work. We’ve got some capacity just now, but it’s all based on small orders delivered over a decade and sharing with other states.
Unlike WW2 the UK doesn’t have broad manufacturing capacity that can be diverted to war production. The UK economy is dominated by service industries, mainly banking. Manufacturing accounts for less than 10% of the UK economy (compared to almost 80% from services).
The extra kit would be a 50% growth in total manufacturing capacity, more like 10-15 times in the specific industries that could produce it. There would also need to be a massive upgrade to chemical & electronics plants to produce military ordnance. It would need to do this almost overnight, we’d need more kit for training people, never mind fighting a war.
There’s room in the British economy for a significant increase in military spending if we faced an existential threat. There’s no political will to spend more than the 2% we’ve committed to via NATO.
The UK doesn’t have the economic base to support significantly increasing manufacturing to equip a scaled up armed force. Nor do we appear to have sufficient spare kit in stock.
Overall, I’d say that we’d need at least a couple of years run up to mass mobilisation. If it ever happens then I hope we get that long. In the meantime, we could do with investing in our manufacturing base. That would make it easier to gear up, and also grow our economy. A strong economy is a better indicator of strength than defence spending.
Davis became a Gurkha officers almost straight out of school in WW2. A Child At Arms should be on reading lists for junior officers and anyone involved in military policy. It compares well to Sydney Jary’s 18 Platoon, which was held up as an excellent example of a platoon commander’s war by the British Army.
A Child At Arms – review
In A Child At Arms Patrick Davis gives a his imperfect memory of his time in the army. Davis came straight out of school into officer training, and volunteered to join the Gurkhas in the Far East. At the age of 19 he joined 4/8th Gurkhas at Kohima just as they were withdrawn to rest.
Davis is very honest in his account. He accepts that memory is imperfect, and even though he kept a journal sporadically during his service he doesn’t recall things he wrote at the time, and other times he has memories that conflict with the notes. This honesty extends to his emotional commentary on how he felt about things.
Serving as the Battalion Intelligence Officer he lead a lot of patrols. He pinpoints the day when he’d finally got beyond what he could cope with and no longer had enthusiasm for taking risks or anything beyond coming back home safely. Despite this he carried on, and went on to become a Company 2ic and then Company Commander just before the end of the war.
The move to the front, and the rebuilding of the battalion is well described, especially the getting to know his Gurkhas and their personalities. Davis gives a good insight into learning Gurkhali and his limitations with it. He also paints a great picture of the men he served with, without presaging their fates.
The patrols, the battles and the country are all written with care. The situations clear, even when confused by the fog if war. Davis gives us only his perspective, he doesn’t try and tell the bits he didn’t see, or can’t remember. There’s just enough context, and a few sketch maps, so that we can follow him through the campaign.
I’ve read many first hand accounts from men that went to war. I don’t recall any being quite this honest, although a few others have mentioned their mental health, not enough do. For that reason alone it should be read widely. On top of that, there aren’t many of these accounts in English from the war in the Far East. So there are more reasons to read it.
I was recommended Dominion by a couple of friends after my review of the TV version of SS-GB. Dominion is a huge tome, it’s 700 pages long, and my first thought was that it probably needed some more editing. However I found it an easy and compelling read. Sansom’s style is more descriptive than others I’ve read, but the extra detail adds to the flavour of the story. The title has multiple interpretations. Britain is a Dominion of nazi Germany, the key protagonist works for the Colonial Office liaising with the Dominions.
Dominion – the review
Dominion takes a far more believable point of departure for its alternate history than SS-GB does. In Dominion Lord Halifax takes over from Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940. Without Churchill the UK also makes peace with Germany in 1940. By the time Dominion is set in 1952 we have a much different Britain, it was never bombed and there is no rationing. Yet we’ve slid into being an authoritarian state with a fascist as Home Secretary in a coalition government. Rigged elections have driven Churchill, Attlee and Bevan underground.
There are several intertwined threads in the story, which gradually come together into the final scene in the book. They’re woven skillfully together in a manner that still leaves room for some surprises when each of the joins come.
I particularly liked the way the key antagonist is written, it would have been so easy to have made him a stereotype bully boy Gestapo thug. Instead he’s a frail human, lost and alone with his twin brother dead on the Russian steppe and his wife left him and taken their son away. Inspector Hoth uses his intelligence and cunning to catch Jews and ship them off, before coming to the UK to try and catch our protagonists. He’s way more sympathetic than the British Special Branch sidekick he picks up, which makes him all the scarier.
The main characters are all different, yet well observed to feel very real. They have more than one dimension to them. More than stereotypes. The central characters are pre-war university friends thrown together by circumstances. Two are civil servants and spying for the Resistance. The third (Frank Muncaster) is a scientist working at Birmingham University with a brother working for the US Government who gets sectioned after an argument with his brother.
David, one of the principal point of view characters, is a grammar school boy weighed down by the hopes of his family. After university, where he roomed with Muncaster, he joins the colonial office. There’s a brief spell in the army in 1939-40 where he serves in the Norway campaign. After the peace he returns to the Colonial Office. We find him ten years later married to Sarah, the daughter of an active pacifist. Both are still mourning the loss of their young son. David also carries secrets, and bitterness about the Nazi influence on Britain. There’s a marriage in trouble alongside the weightier affairs of state. All of this colours what happens.
Story line – no spoilers
The story revolves around helping Frank escape from the Germans with his terrible secret intact. His brother has been working on the atomic bomb for the American government. Frank has learnt something that would make it easier for others to practically?build their own bomb.
There are two parallel attempts to get Frank out of the mental hospital that he’s been placed in. One by the resistance and the other by the Germans. The Germans are constrained by the niceties of Britain being notionally independent.
If you are a fan of alternative history this is definitely a must read. There’s a stack of research underpinning the book, and I didn’t spot anything that felt wrong to me.
Is Archer of the Yard just doing his civil police job or is he a Nazi collaborator?
I have a fascination with the moral dilemma of being a collaborator or changing sides in civil wars and occupations. None more so than the situation that Archer of the Yard finds himself in with SS-GB.
Let’s unpack Archer’s moral dilemma a little, and see whether we think he’s just doing the job, or whether he’s facilitating the worst excesses of Nazism by being a collaborator.
Archer as Loyal Policeman
The oath of a constable hasn’t changed much over the centuries. It’s had an update earlier this century to add fairness, but essentially it’s the same as the oath of office Archer would have taken when he joined the Met Police.
To serve the King and “…to the best of my power cause the peace to be kept and preserved, and prevent all offences against the persons and properties of His Majesty’s subjects…”
That’s the core of the constable’s oath. He’s promising to uphold the law and keep the peace. The constable is doing it on behalf of the King, but his duty is to the law.
Unlike soldiers, who promise loyalty to the King, his heirs and successors and the officers appointed above them, there is no explicit duty to serve the King or government. In fact this independence of the constabulary to uphold the law, against the government if need be, sets them apart.
Archer has no oath of loyalty that says he must oppose the Germans. In staying in his job and catching criminals he’s displaying his loyalty to his country’s law.
Archer as a Collaborator
The niceties of law and oaths of office aside, Archer is working with Germans. For some this alone marks Archer as a Collaborator. We see this in the comments and attitudes of many of the other characters. Even his son asks this.
The mere fact if having a German boss is compounded when Dr Huth arrives. Archer is seen in company of SS troops, often rounding up people and taking them away. Despite his best efforts wherever he goes the SS follow and arrest people. Even at his son’s school a master and several older boys are taken in for questioning.
Archer, his son and household directly benefit from him keeping his job. As well as pay he gets extra rations and has access to a car.
While in the job he gets to influence what the Germans are doing. His influence is low, but not nonexistent. He facilitates the escape of his erstwhile secretary and also turns a blind eye to other resistance activity. Where he can he frustrates the occupation forces in small ways.
Archer isn’t stupid. He’s well aware of how others see him. He knows there are people that would kill him given an opportunity. When he talks to the press he stresses the apolitical nature of his work and non involvement in doing the Germans dirty work.
Archer has seen the Germans at first hand. He’s met the SS and Gestapo that chase the resistance, they work in the building next door. He knows that they are brutal and inhuman. Archer is also aware that they’re the people that would replace him and his colleagues if they quit.
There’s also the fact that the war is pretty much over. There isn’t a prospect of the US launching a cross-atlantic assault to free Britain. The only real hope Britain might have is that the Germans decide to go home in a couple of years having installed a friendly puppet government. That’s the point Britain might restore itself the way Germany did after WW1.
In the meantime Archer believes that staying in post and maintaining the standards and forms of the prewar ways is the best hope to enable return. Giving up and letting the Germans take over will lead to anarchy, brutality and many avoidable British deaths.
He might be wrong. He might be dragged into helping the Germans with their brutality and rounding up of British patriots.
That’s Archer’s dilemma. Be thought a collaborator but prevent a more excessive regime, or escape and let the excesses happen.
SS-GB has a lot of elements that I enjoy. It’s an alternative history, it’s a police procedural, it has espionage/intelligence aspects and it’s set during WW2. It also has another element that fascinates me. When do you remain loyal and when should you change sides? I was always going to watch this programme.
The story is set in 1941, fourteen months after a successful German Invasion of Britain. In the opening shots we are treated to some odd sights, British landmarks draped in nazi red banners with black swastikas. This includes the houses of parliament and a bombed out Buckingham Palace. The first scene is a spitfire in RAF roundels flying low over Westminster and landing in the Mall. A BBC broadcast tells us that the last remaining spitfire is being given to the Soviets in a friendship pact. A British resistance fighter then steps out of a hut and shoots the German pilot before being taken prisoner.
The main protagonist of SS-GB is Detective Superintendent Archer of the Metropolitan Police. A career police officer, with a degree in modern languages (and fluent German), he works under German direction in civil policing. We first see him relaxing with his mistress, a secretary from his own division.
Archer and his Sergeant are called to investigate a murder. The police cordon has a backdrop of nazi posters and german soldiers conducting a checkpoint sweep in the street. The victim has been shot, and clues are found at the scene. Archer suspects the victim’s home was a resistance safe house. While he looks out the window he spots a woman in pale pink leaving. She’s a stark contrast to the rest of the people we’ve seen, all in dark and drab colours.
Archer races out of the house in pursuit of the lady in pink. He spots her entering a cafe and follows her in. She is an American journalist from the New York Post. A little too highly connected for the dodgy underworld place the body was found.
With a clear black market connection to the German military Archer turns over the case to the Germans to deal with. Here we get a glimpse of the inter-service rivalries that plagued Nazi Germany. The case is claimed from the Luftwaffe (one of their men was the connection) by the SS (because of the resistance connection) and is then dropped back into Archer’s lap. This last is the cause for concern as an SS Colonel Dr Huth is sent from Himmler’s private office to oversee Archer and his investigation. This scares Archer’s german boss because he can’t see the internal politics.
Archer is a conflicted character. We see this in his interactions with the other British characters, including his Sergeant, his son and his erstwhile mistress/secretary.
Ostensibly Archer is working for the Germans. That’s certainly how many see it, he gets questioned that way by the press and also by several others during the course of the episode. His retort is that he works to uphold the law and there is nothing political in what he does, nor will there ever be. The murder investigation, or rather his political oversight by Huth, seems to erode that.
He isn’t a nazi. He’s clear at several points that he serves law. Where references to the resistance come up he largely ignores them. He doesn’t seem keen to turn them in, and doesn’t turn over all the evidence when he passes the case on to the Luftwaffe. One of the key scenes for this is when his son and the son of his housekeeper question him from the back of the car as he’s taking them to school. He shows that he is being careful in how he deals with the nazis, and that he expects them to go home one day. When they do he wants to restore things to how they used to be. He carries on with his day job because he thinks that’s the best way to achieve that.
On the other hand, Archer knows better than to openly defy the nazis. Those that do end up dead or deported. There are plenty of background clues about this. His dealings with the germans are correct and perfunctory. He answers the questions that he is asked with only enough detail to satisfy. He does what he is told to do.
I enjoyed the first episode. It was a good scene setter, and introduced the main characters well. I’ll be watching the rest of it to see if it lives up to the promise. It will also be interesting to see if the BBC have gone further than Deighton did, or if they’ve changed anything.
Soldier in the Sun is a newsreel type production of the British Army in the Radfan in Aden in 1964. Shot completely on location in Aden and featuring real soldiers talking unscripted about their experiences.
I caught Soldier in the Sun on the BBC iplayer where it is still available more or less indefinitely. If you can’t get the iplayer then it is available on YouTube in two parts (embedded below).
What struck me about Soldier in the Sun was that, kit aside, it could just as well have been filmed 50 years later in Afghanistan. The situation in Aden was of an unseen enemy consisting of hill tribes armed with a variety of weapons.Â Roads were mined and ambushes common. Outposts took sniper and mortar fire and were sometimes assaulted. Resupply was mainly by helicopter and air support made the enemy disappear, sometimes just by flying over.
The soldier commentary was interesting. They talked about the conditions and getting used to them.Â They complained about all the things you’d expect if you’ve ever met soldiers.
Another interesting scene was a sniper attack on the outpost, followed by the clearance patrol. The camera crew went with them and filmed a cave being cleared with a grenade.
PS as I was looking for an iplayer link to Soldier in the Sun I discovered that there are a load of these at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/group/p02g70hx