Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

BRIXMIS: The best untold story of the Cold War?

Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who’s ever heard of BRIXMIS. Often I talk to people who think they know a lot about covert operations and secret missions of the Cold War, but find they’ve never heard of it. It’s nice to know there is someone else, at least, out there who knows about it.
I suppose at this point I should explain, for the benefit of readers other than the one who posted the question, what BRIXMIS was and why it is one of the best stories of the Cold War that (almost) nobody knows.
As everybody does know, Germany was carved up between the Britain, France , the USA and the Soviet Union after the Second World. Whilst relationships between the western allies and the Soviet block were still relatively friendly, an agreement was reached whereby each party would be allowed a small military mission in the others territory. These missions would have quasi-diplomatic status, meaning they could move around unhindered by the military or civilian police.
The British mission, BRIXMIS, was set up first and was the largest. The other three were considerably smaller. The Soviet Union used their mission, SOXMIS, to run secret agents. The western allies also used their to spy, but did so very differently.
Being bigger, BRIXMIS ran three-man teams. The French and Americans used two man teams, which were less effective. They wore military uniforms and drove western cars, but were able to move freely around East Germany. There were, officially, some restrictions on where they could go, but they were usually ignored.
As a result BRIXMIS teams were able to see first hand the Warsaw Pact in action. When Soviet armoured divisions mobilised in radio silence and deployed on the West German border, BRIXMIS watched. When four Russian divisions were mobilised in four days to surround West Berlin, BRIXMIS was there.
They also did a lot more than just observe. By the 1980s a stand MO had been worked out for BRIXMIS. An Intelligence Corps Officer was in command, a Royal Corps of Transport driver was at the wheel, and the third person on the team was usually seconded from the SAS. Tours would last several days, with the teams sleeping in the woods, often in the middle of huge formations of Soviet troops.
(You see why this is such a great story? Everyone remembers the SAS in Malaya and Borneo and Oman and the Falklands, but who lists East Germany as one of their Cold War deployments?)
At the start of the eighties the teams drove Range Rovers or special four wheel drive Opel Senators, but by the end they were given Mercedes G Wagons. This was important because, as each BRIXMIS team deployed, it would be given a Stasi escort. However, the poor old secret police in their Trabants or Wartburgs had no chance against a RCT driver at the wheel of a high powered 4x4. Once free of their chaperone, the BRIXMIS teams could start their work. Usually this would mean getting out of the vehicle and having a scout around on foot to see what could be found.
The intelligence coups of BRXMIS were quite significant. Rooting around in a dustbin after a Warsaw Pact exercise one team uncovered a guide to all the Soviet weapon systems, with special mention of all their defects. On another occasion a key to the top hatch of a T-64 tank was fashioned from a photograph, and so when one of these brand new tanks was found parked up and unguarded the team were able to unlock it, pop inside and take some photos of a vehicle many Soviet officers didn’t even know existed.
Sometimes the team would take some trophies home with them. These included empty shell casing from the new AK-74 assault rifle, a sample of reactive armour, and even the radar and engines from a crashed Yak-28.
The BRIXMIS teams also got to observe the Soviet military in operation at close hand. If the Cold War turned hot the SAS would operate as stay-behind parties, sabotaging the Soviet logistics. The SAS who deployed with BRIXMIS were therefore interested to find that very few Warsaw Pact officers were ever given maps, and that the movement of Russian units depended on teams going out to put up road signs beforehand. The SAS were therefore briefed that these people would be a priority target in wartime.
Save to say the Soviet and East German authorities didn’t take too kindly to this sort of snooping. They couldn’t actually stop BRIXMIS without also losing SOXMIS, and that was too valuable for them to do this. Instead, they could make life as hard as possible, whilst arranging the occasional little ‘accident’.
Teams found where they shouldn’t be could be detained for a few hours. Anyone who went too far, like the American team which refused to stop at a checkpoint and ran over a Soviet guard, could be declared persona non grata and sent home.
The ‘accidents’ though, were another matter. These usually involved lorries which swerved across the road to take out a BRIXMIS vehicle. The photo on the right shows what happened to a French team. One photo taken by BRIXMIS shows a heavy Soviet tractor unit, hastily detached from the pontoon it had been towing, charging like a raging bull towards them across a dusty plain, still training wires and other bits of bridge. Several missions vehicles were lost in this way, and others in more ordinary accidents.

Other ways of dealing with the missions were even more direct. BRIXMIS teams were sometimes shot at, but never hit. However, on 24 March 1985 Major Arthur ‘Nick’ Nicholson of American USMLM was shot by a guard at a Russian tank storage facility. Major Nicholson died several hours later after being refused medical attention. The resulting diplomatic freeze saw the US boycott a planned joint celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War.
But back to the original question, why doesn’t BRIXMIS get the recognition it deserves? I really have no idea. There is a good book on them, and it’s by Tony Geraghty whose Who Dares Wins was required reading for teenage boys when I was growing up. I’m surprised more people haven’t read his BRIXMIS.
I’m also surprised it doesn’t appear in more books about the SAS. I first learnt about BRIXMIS in Ken Connor’s book about the Regiment. However, Connor’s book is a factual account of the history of the SAS, whereas most books on the subject are mostly fiction. You can add imaginary firefights in Iraq quite easily, but I guess you couldn’t really get away with making up shootouts in Cold War East Germany.
This is all a pity because it’s a great story. This is Major General P G Williams CMG OBE, a BRIXMIS tour commander in the 1980s:
“It is already impossible to recreate a true impression of the fantastic atmosphere of professionalism, enthusiasm and camaraderie that characterised life in BRIXMIS. The job itself was exhilarating, not infrequently dangerous and undoubtedly addictive; it really was the ‘Great Game’ of the Cold War, played out in the forests and farmland of regions with evocative names like Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and Saxony.”
I suspect BRIXMIS will remain a secret until such a time as someone makes a film or a TV series about it. The story is there to be told, we just need someone to tell it.
Tony Geraghty (1996). Brixmis: The Untold Exploits of Britain's Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission
Major General P G Williams BRIXMIS in the 1980s: The Cold War's Great Game
There is a BRIXMIS Opel Senator in the Cold War Museum at RAF Cosford.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

The San Juan Pig War: the silliest war in history?

The San Juan Pig War of 1859 was pretty ridiculous. The only casualty was the pig, which I suppose in some ways makes it less silly than the numerous wars where people got killed, but the fact that the late porker almost caused the USA to go to war with the British Empire is very, very silly.

The issue was the island of San Juan, which lies between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Nobody was sure if it was in the USA or Canada. In 1859 it was home to nineteen Americans and sixteen Brits. Sovereignty was an academic issue until 15 June that year when American farmer Lyman Cutlar shot a pig belonging to an Irishman who worked for the Hudson Bay Company. The British authorities tried to arrest Cutlar, who demanded protection from the US government. America sent in the army and Britain sent in the marines. By the middle of August 450 US troops with 14 cannon faced 5 British warships with 70 cannon and over 2000 crew.

The Americans were under the command of one General William S Harvey, a famous Indian fighter with a notoriously short fuse. This man had previously been court marshalled for invading Mexico without orders. Some said he had political ambitions, others that he was insane. Either way he was hardly the ideal commander for such a sensitive mission.

Sabres were rattled, threats were made, but fortunately no more than insults were exchanged. The situation eventually settled down to a cold war that lasted for thirteen years. The Civil War came and went, Canada gained it’s independence, but the standoff continued. The Americans built themselves a nice stockade, whilst the British constructed something a little more Imperial, with tennis courts and, for the commanding officer, a grand house with a ballroom and a billiard room.

During this time the two sides got quite friendly. There were race meetings and picnics for the officers. In the end the King of Germany was asked to arbitrate, and he decided the island was American. The Royal Navy hauled down the flag and sailed away. The Americans chopped up the flagpole and used it for firewood.
Historically the war is significant only in that the British Empire backed down without a fight and voluntarily gave up territory. That didn’t happen again until the flag was lowered in India in 1947.
Source: Heaven’s Command by Jan Morris

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Iran versus the USA

Sabres are being rattled in the Persian Gulf again, and serious people are wondering whether US National Security Adviser John Bolton is trying to provoke a war between the USA and Iran. These showdowns have been happening on a regular basis over the last thirty years and they don't generally end very well - for the USA.

"Thank God for the sandstorm"

The Iranian revolution which swept away the massively unpopular Shah or Iran in 1979 was no surprise to anyone, except US intelligence. The American spooks had used the country to keep an eye on the strategically important Persian Gulf, but had neglected to keep an eye on the country itself.

Overnight the US lost it's key regional alley. It also lost its embassy, which was seized by young Islamists. Rather ironically, Iran was to have its own embassy in London taken over by terrorists a year later. In the UK the SAS soon cleared them out in one of its most famous operations. However, in Tehran the mullah's had no such intention. If the hostages were to be rescued the US special forces would need to do the job themselves.

America had, by this time, it's own elite team based on the British SAS; Delta Force. However, whilst the SAS drove to Prince's Gate in their Range Rovers, Delta Force would need to take a more complicated route to the US embassy in Tehran. The plan they came up with was one of the most ambitious in history. Or, if you prefer, one of the most insane. 

The operation was to begin with a night rendezvous between eight helicopters and six transport planes at a secret location in Iran called Desert One. The choppers would then fly the assault force another 200 miles to Desert Two, which was about fifty miles from Tehran. The CIA would then help the assault drive into town, where they would rescue the hostages, bus them across the city to a sports stadium, where they would be picked up by the choppers again, flown another 400 miles to an Iranian air base, which had hopefully been captured by paratroopers,and then finally fly home.

The Iranians were, presumably, just going to stand by and watch. 
In the end it all went wrong very quickly, which was probably fortunate. Desert One wasn't quite the remote spot it was supposed to be and the first thing the US special forces had to do was detain a bus load of Iranians who'd been driving past. The bus was followed by another lorry which refused to stop. The Americans decided to stop it anyway by firing an anti-tank rocket at it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a petrol tanker and the resulting explosion lit up the desert from horizon to horizon. The driver, a smuggler probably, miraculously survived and legged it into the desert.

Undaunted the team planned to carry on, but they were already two helicopters down due to mechanical failure and the pilots, having flown through a sand storm at ultra low level, were bushed. They all agreed to call it a day, but as one of the choppers took off it stuck a tanker plane resulting in another huge explosion and the death of eight men. The surviving Americans quickly skedaddled in the surviving aircraft leaving debris scattered across the desert, and a party of extremely confused bus passengers.
Had it not all gone horribly wrong so early, the assault on the airbase would probably have gone all right, although the Rangers were to struggle to carry out a similar operation in the rather more benign military environment of Grenada three years later. The rest of the mission though was just suicide. Assuming the Iranian police weren’t suspicious of several truck loads of white guys cruising round downtown Tehran, the assault on the Embassy might well have worked, although it probably wouldn’t have been either swift or surgical.
The plan of trucks in and helicopters out though was seriously flawed. It was in fact very similar to that attempted in Mogadishu in the ’Black Hawk Down’ incident. That was a smaller operation, in a similar urban environment, but was carried out much closer to the US base, used choppers much more suited to the task, and was supported by light attack helicopters and, in the end, mechanised infantry forces. It was also against an irregular opponent, not the military forces of a medium sized state.
The most likely outcome of the mission would be the complete loss of the Delta Force team and all the helicopters, significant casualties amongst the Rangers, very significant civilian casualties and huge propaganda boost for the Iranian Revolution.
That’s my opinion, but that of those of those who would have been rescued was not favourable either. One hostage, when told of the plan after his eventual release, remarked "Thank God for the sandstorm."

"I will never apologise for the United States"

Hoping the country was too distracted by its revolution to put up much resistance, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980. Like pretty much everything else Saddam did, he messed it up, and rather than a quick victory, the war turned into a prolonged bloodbath. Rather remarkably, given what was to happen in the future, the USA backed Iraq. US military aid couldn't give Saddam victory, but it did stop him losing. 

Unable to win the ground was, Iran decided to play its trump card by launching attacks on shipping passing through the Straits of Hormuz. Faced with the prospect of having the world's oil supply choked off the US Navy went into action and in a series of operation they sank pretty much anything the Iranians put to see larger than a rowing boat. Iraq's contribution to this was to hit the US frigate Stark with an Exocet missile, but they were allowed to get away with that as they were the 'good guys'. 

Unfortunately, being the USA, they didn't stop there. in April 1988 the cruiser USS Vincennes was deployed to the Persian Gulf. In a few months of operations it gained the nickname 'Robocruiser' for its willingness to engage the Iranian Navy. Unfortunately, it's aggression was not matched by its competence. On 3 July 1988 it was pursuing Iranian gunboats into Iranian waters when its radar operators completely lost track of the air picture. Mistaking a scheduled Iran Air Airbus for an attacking F14 fighter plane the Vincennes shot down the civilian airliner and killed 290 people. 

Despite gung-ho coverage of the tragedy in the US media, the rest of the world was quite clear who was responsible, and the USA ended up paying $132 million in compensation, although significantly there was no apology. 

"Terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business"

In 2002 the War on Terror had only got as far as Afghanistan, but the USA was already casting around for other enemies. With this background the US military decide to carry out a wargame called Millennium Challenge 2002, in which an American, 'Blue', force attacked that of an unknown Middle Eastern enemy. Called 'Blue' force, they were without doubt meant to be Iran. 

To command the 'Red' force they dragged out of retirement Marine General Paul K Van Ripper. General Ripper sounds like a joke name, and to be honest he sounds like a joke general. Wounded in Vietnam whilst attacking an enemy machine gun, he eventually ended up an honorary member of the Provost Marshal's office, during which time he'd spend his lunch breaks giving out speeding tickets. 

Millennium Challenge was to show that Ripper was either a military genius, or a neo-Luddite who hated technology, or possibly both. He certainly had a pragmatic attitude to war, which he described as a "terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business." It certainly was to turn out to be that for 'Blue'. 

Facing an opponent with a much greater ability to wage electronic warfare, Ripper used motorcycle couriers to pass orders, and signal lamps to launch aircraft. When Blue issued its ultimatum to Red, Ripper used this to guess where the Blue fleet was and sent out small boats to find them. Preempting Blue's preemptive strike, he overwhelmed their fleet with a barrage of missiles launched from land, commercial ship and aircraft flying in radio silence. He followed this up with waves of kamikaze boats filled with explosives. "The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes," said Van Ripper. Blue lost nineteen ships including an aircraft carrier, several cruisers and five amphibious ships. 20,000 - fortunately imaginary - sailors died. The aftermath, Van Ripper said, was "an eerie silence. Like people really didn't know what to do next."

Faced with a $250 million exercise scheduled to last two weeks being over in less than a quarter of an hour, the make believe ships were re-floated and the exercise continued, although Van Ripper was now told to stick to the script. 

It's difficult to know what lessons the US military learnt from MC '02, as the next year they launched a very different sort of attack on, not Iran, but Iraq, which turned out to be a very different sort of disaster. 

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Electric Rallycross

Is one of the world’s top motorsport series about to go electric? Quite possibly, and we’re not talking Scalextric here, but real motorsport. This is going to be big news, or at least it will be if it happens. This is the story.

The FIA, which stands for International Automobile Federation, only in French, currently licenses four motorsport world championships. These are Formula One, Rallying, Endurance Cars and the World Rallycross Championship. The Americans may dispute this, but these four series are the pinnacle of motorsport. And guess what? One of them, Rallycross, has announced it’s to go electric. All electric. They’re not just going to allow electric cars, like several other series are doing so, nor are they going to run a parallel series, like Formula E, but the whole series is to go electric. If all goes to plan, when the cars line up for the start of the first race of the 2021 World RX Championship, every single one will be an EV.

So how did we get here? Well, rallycross was a British invention, making it one of the few branches of motorsport that was not initially in French. It is a cross between rallying and circuit racing. Cars would race together round a short circuit that was half tarmac and half gravel. The inaugural event was at Lydden Hill in Kent in 1967 and was shown on World of Sport.

That the first event was televised was no coincidence. Rallycross was pretty much designed to make
it watchable. Formula One costs a fortune and nobody overtakes, rallying takes place in the middle of nowhere and endurance racing goes on forever. With rallycross though you can sit yourself down in the grandstand and watch every moment of a day of close racing. As in rallying, the cars look like ordinary cars, but they are four-wheel drive, turbocharged and very, very fast. An event consists of a number of races. Each race lasts no more than five minutes so they’re short enough to be shared in an email. To spice things up a bit more a recent innovation is the Joker Lap, which adds a bit of tactics to the mix.

Rallycross was a staple of Saturday TV when I was growing up in the seventies and my first Scalextric Set that I would was called the Mini Rallycross. However, outside of my bedroom, rallycross in the UK never quite made it to the first tier of motorsport. There was a European Championship, but the only people who took it seriously were the Scandinavians. However, all that changed in 2014, when the FIA made rallycross the fourth of its world series. Big names from the world of rallying and racing signed up and the car manufacturers chipped in money and expertise. World RX was off the starting line and quickly became the most exciting motorsport on the planet.

None of that is likely to get the average Greenpeacer too excited though. However, the news that came out at the start of last year might: rallycross would go all electric in 2020. This was a major announcement. It meant that every single rallycross car currently being used would be obsolete. Everyone would need new vehicles. Although it’s the teams with manufacturer backing that usually win the races, most of the field in rallycross is smaller, private teams. They would be allowed to make their own electric cars, but realistically they’d be looking to buy them. The FIA therefore needed to know that there were enough manufacturers interested both to make sure the season had enough works and private teams to make it interesting. The date of the changeover was initially 2020, then 2021, but the FIA said it had four companies interested and that it would definitely be happening. Prototypes of the cars have been built and they are at least as powerful as the current supercars, which means 500bhp plus and 0-100kmh in two seconds.

Then, in summer 2018, the wheels started to come off the wagon. Why this happened is still being debated, but over the course of the second half of the year the big manufacturers dropped out of the sport one by one. In their wake several of the big-name drivers moved on. Increasing costs, the general direness of the world economy and the domination of the championship by one team (VW) have all been cited as reasons, plus the fact the rallycross, as the new kid on the block, doesn’t have the resilience of other series to survive these sorts of setbacks. As things stand, we know the 2019 series will be going ahead in April, but we don’t know who’ll be in it. Many of the regular drivers are still trying to find cars, or money, or both.

So where does this lead the FIAs electric dreams? Officially the plans are still going ahead. Unofficially the fear is that with a diminished series, audiences and sponsors will depart, and that the manufacturers will reconsider splashing out big money on electric supercars. More optimistic voices think this could be a blessing in disguise, that rallycross will become more interesting now more teams will have a chance of winning.

So as things stand the 2012 World Rallycross Championship will certainly sound very different, although what it will look is still uncertain. Making the car on the track electric in itself won’t reduce the carbon footprint of the sport much, as most of the emissions for an event are from the spectators. However, as anyone who’s been to watch motorsport knows, road going versions of the cars on the track very quickly become the desirable cars in the car park. So, if it happens, rallycross going electric should be great news for both eco-warriors and petrolheads, if you’ll be able to still call them that.

To get a flavour of what World RX is like click here:

Here is a test of an electric rallycross car here:

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Harry Lies: Propaganda in Shakespeare's Henry V

"Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!"

We live in a post-truth age. Conflicts rage around the world, but nobody can agree on who started them, who's going to end them or even who's actually been killed in them. If only we lived in a simpler age, one in which the who, the why and the how of warfare was much clearer. Shakespeare's age, for example.

Well, maybe not. Shakespeare wrote a lot of Histories, but there wasn't much history in them. Most of them were about Henries: three Henry VIs, two Henry IVs and a Henry V. It was, as Ben Elton put it, a veritable Henry Theatrical Universe. But it was also a fictional, theatrical universe.

In that universe it it Henry V that remains the most well known and well quoted. Like all Shakespeare it's hotly debated what it is all about. Even the question of whether it is pro or anti war is still up for debate. In no small part this is because Shakespeare never wrote with simple themes. The play is both pro and anti war, because that's the way Shakespeare seemed to want it.

However, there does seem to me one theme in Henry V that is quite clear, and I'm surprised how little it is discussed given its relevance to today. It seems to me that whilst it may sit on the fence on the morality of conflict, it is very much a master class on one particular aspect of war: propaganda. Throughout the play the words and actions of the principle characters are often jarringly at odds. What is being said and what is being done are often at ninety degrees to each other. Shakespeare may never have seen a real war, but he clearly knew what the first casualty was.

"Now all the youth of England are on fire"

In case there is any doubt that this is a theme of the play Shakespeare, through the mouth of Chorus, pretty much tells us this right at the start. Apologising for the limitations of the theatre, Chorus says we will only be dealing with "imaginary forces". There will be no actual battles, only words. This point loses it a bit today as most people - including me - have only seen Henry V on screen, where we do actually get very realistic fight.

The disinformation though starts well before the fighting. The play begins with Chorus asking us to imagine in the theatre:

Are we now confined two mighty monarchs
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts 
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder

However this is immediately followed by the appearance of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, who are discussing Henry's plans to tax the church. In response they plan to distract Henry by having him claim his right to a chunk of France, knowing this will lead to war. The cause of the war is never mentioned again by any of the characters, and is usually forgotten by the audience as well, which I suspect is Shakespeare's point.

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more"

And so we fast forward to the action: the siege of Harfleur.

Except that we don't. As Act III begins, with Harry's speech urging his men to death or glory, the attack has already failed. The speech is immediately followed by a cut to the ordinary soldiers Nym, Bandolph and Pistol, who have decided that enough is enough. But this is just the Bard warming up. The real hit comes next. Henry stands before the city gates and gives the following blood-curdling speech.

If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?

The point here is not just that our brave hero is threatening the murder or rape of the civilians of the town, which is in itself a pretty eye-opening thing for a noble hero to be doing. Nor is it that he's blaming the French for it, which is one of the oldest propaganda tricks in the book. The real point is that he is threatening something he can't possibly do. The attack has failed, all he has left is bluff.

But it works. The French are in an equally parlous state, and throw in the towel.

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"

But what really shows that Harry has the gift of the gab though is his speech on the battlefield of Agincourt.

It is, of course, quite magnificent, enough to make even the most cowardly pacifist take up a longbow and pot a Frenchie or two. However amongst the flowery rhetoric are some pretty bonkers suggestions. Such as:

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

This is clearly nuts. Following this logic Harry should send the army home and fight the French alone. What's more, even Henry clearly doesn't mean it. He has put every man he has into the battle line, leaving his baggage train guarded by only young boys, and if he had more men he'd have no doubt put them into the field too. His words do not match his actions.

But, once again, it works. His men fight better than the enemy and win the battle.

"Then every soldier kill his prisoners"

And so we come to the most controversial part of the play, so controversial it's usually missed out.

It's Act IV, Scene VI. The battle has been going on for three scenes now and the French army has broken. Hal does not know this yet though, and at the end of the scene the French appear to be attacking again.

But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter'd men
Then every soldier kill his prisoners
Give the word through

Yes, brave Harry has just ordered his men to kill unarmed prisoners of war.

However, it is a false alarm, the battle is in fact won. However at the start of Scene VII he comes across the consequences of putting every man into the battle line. The French have sneaked round the back killed the boys who he had left defending the baggage. Surveying their bodies Shakespeare has Henry say

I was not angry since I came to France
Until this instant.
Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy.

So Henry has just told his men to massacre the French prisoners again. Why is Hal telling his men to kill people who are already dead?

Here we have Shakespeare using propaganda in a way that echoes all too readily in modern ears. The two armies have each committed what we would today call war crimes, and although they didn't have that term then, in an Age of Chivalry killing prisoners of war and boys was still not considered a terribly good thing. However, Henry now intends to justify his atrocities by pretending the French started it. His order to kill the prisoners, issued rashly out of perceived military necessity, has just been spun to be an understandable response to Gallic frightfulness. 

"They lost France and made his England bleed"

So Hal wins his battle, and then the hand of the fair Kate, daughter of the King of France. But how does Shakespeare's most jingoistic play actually end? With Chorus summing it all up.

He again apologises for the limitations of the theatre, calls England "the world's best garden", then ends with a zinger: "... left his son imperial lord. Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King Of France and England." Henry VI, the subject of Shakespeare's first three histories, was the king whose failures lost France and led to the Wars of the Roses. The entire story of Henry V then meant nothing. It was all just propaganda.

The huge irony about Henry V being a play about propaganda though is that it ended up being used as propaganda. All his Histories were puff-pieces for the Tudors really, but in the years since then it was generally Henry V that was rolled out when a bit of fiery rhetoric was needed. Lawrence Olivier's magnificent 1944 film version was just that, with the French standing in for the Nazis, which was a bit mean as they were on our side in that war.

Actually though this is a bit more than irony. Writing a play about the lies and deceptions that send young men to their deaths in pointless conflicts, that ends up getting used to send young men to their deaths in pointless conflicts is slightly more than just ironic. It's actually an epic fail.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Fatherland UK

If the Nazis won the war it seems to be assumed that the Holocaust would be covered up, a guilty secret that must be kept. Fatherland by Robert Harris is the best known example of this trope.

The reality though would probably be different. Two hundred years later, with democracy restored, the Holocaust would in fact be a subject of study at school. There would be be academic books and TV programs on the subject, and a Holocaust museum which bored school children would be taken to visit.

Some people would no doubt be pointing out that antisemitism was still rife in society, that Jewish people were still subject to racist abuse from more ignorant members of the public, were more lielly to be stopped by the police or sent to prison, and that the government was still 'accidentally' deporting British Jews back to Palestine. However these few lone voices would usually be shouted down as 'unpatriotic snowflakes' or 'social justice warriors' who 'hate Britain'.

More enlightened commentators would give a 'more balanced' view of the Third Reich. They would point to the suppression of communism, the national parks, the motorways and the campaign against smoking. They would acknowledge that the Holocaust happened, of course, but point out the ruinous folly of embarking on another world war to stop it. Meanwhile the number of prominent Jews in society would be evidence of how much progress had been made. Why, even in New Berlin these days these you can buy menorahs in the gift shops.

However some problems would continue. One thorny issue might be the statue of John Amery, the leader of the British Free Corps, standing proudly near his home in Chelsea. It wouldn't just be his statue either. There would be the issue of Amery College, Oxford, the Amery Hospital and the other benevolent institutions he founded. The 'social justice warriors' would be campaigning to get rid of the lot.

Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol
But if Amery's statue was to go, others would argue, what about the one of Churchill in Parliament Square? Was he not also a right wing conservative, a big fan of the British Empire, and at least partly responsible for a million deaths in the Bengal Famine? True, if Churchill had had his way he would have had Amery shot for treason, but why should such intolerance be respected?

The British Free Corps is part of our history, most people would say, we should be proud of it and the part it played in making Britain great again. We should be free to fly the swastika with pride and celebrate 'our boys' who died bravely fighting in Russia.

 Most people though would be just fed up of the whole business.

(This blog is influenced by - meaning blatantly plagiarised from - Fatherlands by Jack Graham, which can be found here)

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Review of the Year 2018


Another year on planet Earth, and it really does appear that the lunatics are now running the asylum. 

Greenpeace's big campaign this year was trying to create the world's largest ocean sanctuary in the Weddell Sea. The grand plan is for a third of the world's oceans to eventually be protected, starting in the Antarctic. This will help the fight against Climate Change, but equally importantly it may help species survive Climate Change. Given what's going on in the world that might be very necesary.  

Greenpeace sent us some paper penguin masks, which Paul in Ashton assembled for us. Their first action was a photo shoot. We decided to use Castlefields, and so we assemble in the Science Museum cafe. Steve did a fantastic job on the photography and Nuria lent some genuine modelling skills to proceedings.

The combination of rain and industrial architecture gave the pictures an authentic 'Manchester' vibe.  The photo above ended up getting used a lot by Greenpeace in their own publicity, which was great. Greenpeace certainly came up trumps on the design, but unfortunately they didn't make them waterproof. RIP four penguin masks. 

Also in January the Manchester Metropolitan University Geography and Environment Society showed the Bruce Parry film Tawai. We took the penguins there too. For my money there was too much musing that 'we are all to blame' and not enough blaming of corporations for my money, but it was still a good film.

Finally we were out and about as once again London managed to breach it's air pollution limit for the year whilst it was still January. The metrics in Manchester are slightly different, but the problem is still the same, as are the main culprits: diesel cars and vans. Greenpeace Actions Team people had been around putting up coughing people on billboards during the week, but the torrential Manchester rain washed them all away. As a result it was up to Steve and I to go and put some back up again for the photos.


Being an old fashioned sort I count February as the start of spring, so every year the family goes to see the snowdrops at Hopton Hall, near Matlock. February, when the first flowers appear, was always the start of spring in pagan time, and why not?

It was cold, but there was no snow yet. However somewhere where there was snow, and where it was even colder, was Antarctica, where the Arctic Sunrise was exploring the Weddell Sea. Greenpeace sent Bond villain Javier Bardem down in a minisub to explore, making him one of only a handful of people to see the unique underwater eco-system. I'm not jealous. Honest. 

It's a long way from Manchester to the Antarctic, but it turns out there is a connection. I got in touch with Dr Max Jones of Manchester Univeristy and he told me about Manchester's role in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. It was such a good story I decided to book him for a talk. 


Our own snow arrived in March, and almost put paid to any serious organising for the month. However we did eventually manage a meeting, in our new venue of the Lass O'Gowrie pub on Charles Street. 

We were back to saving the Antarctic again, and this time the target was Antarctic krill, which is increasingly appearing on the shelves of our health food shops as Omega III supplements.  

Greenpeace's first target was Holland and Barrett, but they threw in the towel after only four days. By the time Manchester got involved we were onto target number two: Boots. A team of secret squirrels visited four branches of Boots in Manchester city centre, adding warning labels to the Antarctic krill on the shelves. All the local groups were doing this, be we were the first groups to get a reply from the company on their Twitter feed. Some poor PR person clearly had a difficult weekend thanks to us. 

March was also Andy Burnham's Green Summit. The Greater Manchester Mayor had promised this when he was elected last year. The event was at Manchester Central, and was very well organised and presented. Burnham's talent is bringing people together and this is what he did, with speakers such as
Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre and Steve Mogford of United Utilities more or less singing from the same hymn sheet. We also had ex-Manchester United player Gary Neville to add a bit of celebrity glamour to proceedings. 

There were some eye opening stalls around and about though. Manchester Airport were there, and claiming they were carbon neutral. Apparently they don't count the planes.

Burnham himself made time to meet us at lunchtime. Restating his opposition to fracking was a bit of easy publicity for him as he doesn't really have much actual power or budget.

In the evening Frack Free Greater Manchester organised a fracking fringe event, and we had Maureen Mills come down from Lancashire and Eddie Thornton come over from Yorkshire to speak, along with our own Helena Coates. The battle goes on in Lancashire, but Eddie was able to tell us how it was won in Ryedale. An extremely well organised campaign caused the government to pause, and then the perilous state of Third Energy's finances gave them the excuse to pull the plug without looking like they were doing a U-turn. Protests work, but you've always got to give the opposition a way out. 


April started with the opening of the inquiry into Lancashire County Council's decision to stop Cuadrilla Resources from fracking in the village of Roseacre. When the government overturned the Preston New Road decision, Roseacre was left on the shelf. We had a rally outside and I gave a little speech. We still don't know the outcome of this, but my thoughts are still that it will be the test of whether the government is prepared to spend any more political capital on fracking. Hopefully they aren't, but we'll see.

We were back in the Antarctic again in April. Dr Max Jones' talk took us back to the end of the heroic age of exploration. Manchester, it turned out, both welcomed polar explorer Fridjtof Nansen as a both a hero and a bit of all right ("all the women swooned, and so did some men" the papers reported) and helped fund Scott's ill fated mission. It was an interesting evening.

As far as our own Antarctic campaigning went, we were once again targeting Boots, this time with our 'krill-o-meter'. Funnily enough nobody really thought it was a good idea wipe out whales and penguins for a few vitamins. Boots staff were pleasant enough, but their HQ was reportedly having kittens.

April also marked the start of campaigning on palm oil. This was to be our major local group campaign at the end of the year, but for the moment it was only taking place online. If deforestation was a country it would be the third largest contributor to climate change after the USA and China, and palm oil is one of the big four contributors, along with animal grazing, soya for animal feed and paper. 

Greenpeace had run a petition asking PZ Cussons to stop using destructive palm oil, and as their HQ was near Manchester airport Canonbury Villas gave the task of handing it in to them to the local group.

It was nice to be trusted with this. The company wasn't expecting us, but on hearing that Greenpeace were in the foyer they immediately sent down their sustainability guy to speak to us. He seemed a reasonable sort of fellow, and suitably contrite about what they had been doing, so we agreed to pose for a 'smiley' photo with him. All good fun, but you have to be careful not to be drawn into the 'sustainable company' myth. At the end of the day they are wiping out orang-utans, displacing indigenous people and causing climate change just to make shampoo, and making decent amounts of money doing so, and that's not right


In May we were visited by the anti-fracking Nanas from Lancashire. Aliki at Thoughtworks, an ethical tech firm, puts on occasional films for us and we were showing of the new Undercurrents film Power Trip. We'd invited one of the Nanas to speak, but an entire coach load actually turned up, plus honorary Nana Anne Power from Chorlton. It was a good evening.

Also in town, but not as welcome, were the people who brought us the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil company BP. Greenpeace were gearing up for a big action on Total's AGM, and all the serious shareholder activists were in Holland for Shell's AGM, which was being held the day after to stop people who don't fly doing both. As a result it was down to Manchester activists - very much the B Team - to hold the company to account.

I asked a question about the Amazon Reef. This deep water reef, located below where the Amazon
River empties out in the Atlantic - which is exactly where you not expect to find one - was only announced to the world six years ago. A more recent scientific study, carried on the Greenpeace ship Esperanto, found the reef was much more extensive than first thought, and extended well into the area where BP planned to drill for oil. I had the scientific report in my bag, but despite this the BP board decided to lie to my face and claim that they were a long way from the reef, which they also said they'd known about for ages.

Speaking to the board afterwards they were clearly chuffed with themselves. They clearly weren't afraid of such well behaved protesters as us. However they did appear to be afraid of class action suits based around their climate change denial. It was frustrating, but at least I got to call them liars in the press release. 

Also in May I took part in something a bit different organised by Mend Our Mountains, a
conservation effort run by the British Mountaineering Federation that aims to, well, mend our mountains. The idea was to get 1000 people with head torches to stand on the Great Ridge, which runs from Mam Tor to Lose Hill, and lies just south of Kinder Scout. Mam clearly means mother, and Lose is almost certainly a local version of Lugh, a Celtic god of light, so the two hills are named after a goddess and a god. If the natural ridge running between them wasn't an ancient processional way, then I'm not a druid.

I'm not quite sure if they got a thousand, but there were certainly several hundred people up there. It got cold when the sun set, but the resulting pictures were amazing.

Out this month on the internet was a little video by WellRedFilms about the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932. Partly filmed during the Manchester Greenpeace Group's 85th anniversary walk last year, I got to say a few words too. We didn't manage a Kinder Scout walk this year, but we will for 2019.


The festival season begins and still the sun shines.

Envirolution once again proved it was Manchester's best free day out. Matt's small people helped us out and we had such a good response to our stall we ran out of petitions for people to sign.

The festival is also a bit of an AGM of all the Green and social justice groups in Manchester, so it was a chance to meet some familiar people and try to get one over on Friends of the Earth.

Next it was a new venture for Greenpeace: running the an eco-camp field at Download, Heavy Metal's biggest party. The regular Greenpeace festival team are a little apprehensive, but Jeff and I are in our element.

Download is basically 70,000 people getting very, very drunk, with a bit of music on the side. Greenpeace were running a camp site on the edge of the main field. It was part of the Castle Donnington deer park and so can only be used if it was looked after. People who camped with us signed up to recycle and not litter, and they did. We also had a vegan cafe and a yurt for the obligatory yoga session. Doing yoga and then going to watch death metal is probably the equivalent of coming out of a sauna and jumping into a frozen lake, so I hope nobody was permanently injured by the experience.

Metal fans tend to be oddballs and loners, which is why Jeff and I fit into the scene, and the Greenpeace field attracted both types, some of which were at their first festival. Download is such a friendly place though they all fitted right in.

It wasn't all work though and I got to see some bands and do some serious drinking. The one and only Damh the Bard was there. Guns and Roses were the big name, a band I felt like I'd grown up with. Mara pointed out that Axel Rose now looks like Donald trump in a hat, and it seems he can sing other people's songs better than his own now. Slash though made it a really amazing show. Other highlights were Avenged Sevenfold who are now a true headline act, and Thunder, a band I saw at university but who've still got it. Highlight of the weekend though was watching 'Jesus' crowd-surfing to Cradle of Filth whilst an aeroplane flew over trailing a 'God Loves You' banner. Surreal.

Back home our campaigning consists of taking to task Barclays for their financing of a tar sands
pipeline in Canada. This means getting the train into Manchester whilst carrying a large cardboard ATM machine, which was interesting.

Tar sands make fracking look clean and safe and although it's a pretty obscure campaign for Manchester, but people are supportive and sign messages of support. We also had a really angry branch manager when we handed our ATM into the bank, which was reassuring. It always makes me suspicious when they're nice.


This month we received news that all our krill campaigning had paid off: a huge group of companies that control most of the krill fishing announce they were pulling out of the Antarctic and would not be opposing Greenpeace's plans for an ocean sanctuary. A big success for our campaign.

Climate Change also came a bit nearer to home, as Saddleworth Moor caught fire, with the flames visible from my bedroom window. Fortunately the wind was blowing away from Glossop, so it was Tameside Social Services rather than us that had to evacuate people. At night the peat continued to burn and the red glow could be seen after it was too dark to see the hills themselves. It was like looking out over Mordor. I decide to link this with our Barclays campaigning and write a blog for the Greenpeace UK website.

This also made me doubly determined to do something when arch Climate Change denier Donald Trump was in London. I went down on the Manchester coach with Rachel and Hannah from work. It was one of those huge demonstrations where you don't move for two hours, but the atmosphere was great. The banners and costumes are amazing too, if not very polite.

Even though it was a Friday, there were more people in London campaigning against Trump than there had been in Washington celebrating his inauguration the previous year. There were a lot of people around I knew, as I'd expect, but the only one I met up with was Mara who, being American, had even more reason to be there than I had.

We also did some plastic campaigning, and decided to pay a visit to Sainsbury's flagship store at Cheadle Royal. We never know what we're going to get when we go here. Last time the only person who spoke to us was parking warden, who was pleased to meet people who didn't look down their noses at him.

Plastic seemed to be an issue that the SUV driving mums of Wilmslow wanted to engage with though, and many of them take our replacement paper bags to salve their consciences as they drive home.


The start of August found me on holiday in the one part of the UK not suffering a drought. However the wildlife in Dumphries and Galloway didn't seem to mind, and a pair of friendly badgers visited our cottage ever evening.

Greenpeace renewed its campaign to ban diesel cars, and went after old enemy VW again. As a result the pixies were out in Manchester, Altrincham and Stockport decorating VW diesels in the night. As usual, Canonbury Villas don't tell us why we're doing this, but it turns out to be the prelude to a re-branding of the VW offices in Milton Keynes.

I managed a bit more plastic campaigning in August too, firstly in Manchester itself, and then at my second festival of the year. This was RiZe in Chelmsford, which is what has replaced V. We were running the deposit return scheme, where we give people 10p back on their plastic skiffs and bottles.

The Greenpeace team were a fun bunch, and mostly half my age. As we didn't have our own field we were in crew catering, which meant three course meals twice a day. I also found the back stage artists toilets - which actually flushed - and once I'm on friendly terms with the security man I also don't get searched as I came and went, meaning I could bring in my own beer. This was good as they only sold lager on site, this being Essex and all that. The main act was Liam Gallagher, who was excellent when doing Oasis numbers. I saw Oasis before they were famous at a free festival in Preston. This felt like seeing them after they're famous. However the find of the festival for me were Brighton indie outfit Black Honey.

At the end of the month though came the sad news that Lord Peter Melchett, former director of Greenpeace UK, and the only peer of the realm I've ever shared a police cell with, had died. I first met him on the 'Lyng job' of 1999. He had led a fascinating life that took him from his father's farm in Norfolk, through politics in Jim Callaghan's government, to activism with Greenpeace, the Soil Association and other organisations. He was arrested twice, but only ever in Norfolk. My memories of him are here.

There was better news too, as we found out that our tar sands campaign had been successful. A Canadian court squashed the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Canada had planned three pipelines to get the tar sands oil for Alberta to the USA. They were all controversial, but this was the first one to be stopped. Two to go.


After baking in the sunshine at Envirolution, we were looking forward to the Wigan Diggers Festival, and thought it would be a good idea to sell water bottles to raise money for Greenpeace. However come the day we all got a drenching. Fortunately we had our own gazebo, and even more fortunately the people next to us didn't turn up so we could use theirs as well. Preston Greenpeace joined us, but their face painting wasn't too popular due to the weather. Evey and Helen had made cakes and wraps though and these sold well, even though the water bottles didn't. Once we'd finished we got to enjoy the music. Merry Hell were great. Alice had driven there in her new car, and we made it safely there and back again, despite my navigating.

Fortunately it's a bit drier when we return to plastic campaigning. Greenpeace promised a shoppers
revolt against pointless plastic and I was a bit cynical, thinking we'd be lucky to get one mildly dis-chuffed shopper. However they were right and I was wrong.

We had more volunteers than we could actually use - I don't know how many but it was double figures - and a really great response from the public. Even the manager of Chorlton Morrison's seemed pleased to see us. Getting shoppers in Manchester to use less plastic bags is a very long way from cleaning up the world's oceans, but it's a start. Hopefully next year we'll be setting people some more challenging targets.


We were back in the Antarctic in October, with one final push before the Antarctic Commission met in Hobart, Tasmania to decide if the Antarctic ocean sanctuary was going to happen. We showed some film of the Arctic Sunrise expedition and I talked about Greenpeace's 'Million Dollar Missions' in the 1980s. But best of all we had River talk about what it was like to actually be there. He'd served two tours with the British Antarctic Survey at a time when British Antarctica was all white and all male. Things have changed a bit since then thankfully.

Whilst all of the above was going on, the campaign against fracking in Blackpool had been going on.

Scores of people had been arrested for blockading the gates, locking-on and lorry surfing. Three people who'd done the latter last year had found out that Lancashire police had no way of getting them down, and so had ended up on the trucks for several days. The Crown Prosecution service hadn't liked that and so Simon, Richard and Rich had found themselves convicted of Public Nuisance and sent to prison. They weren't the first peaceful eco-warriors to end up behind bars, but they were probably the first since the Mass Trespass in 1932 to go straight to jail without first breaching bail or refusing to pay a fine.

They were released on appeal, and by coincidence a big rally was planned at Preston New Road the week after. Attending meant missing the big anti-Brexit demo in London, but it was worth it. This was the largest gathering there'd been at PNR. Former LibDem leader Tim Farron was there, along with John Ashton, Tina Louise and others, but there was no doubt who the stars of the show were: Simon, Richard and Rich.

Also October I invited the one and only Anne Power to Glossop for another showing of the film Power Trip. The 2014 Observer Ethical Award winner was the film's cover girl, so we had to invite her along.

Glossop isn't an area licensed to frack, which is why Frack Free Glossop is just Rod and I, but it was good too see that even here there is strong opposition to shale gas.

Anne told us about watching the Blitz on Liverpool in the Second World War, and the campaigns against fracking at Barton Moss and Lancashire. She is still going strong as a campaigner at 87, so she has a way of making us all feel inadequate.


Barclays was visited again in November. The Trans Mountain Pipeline may be history, but they still had plenty of money invested in dirty fossil fuels, so using the contacts we'd made earlier in the year we encouraged people to get in touch with them and tell them to stop. Ben from Hebden Bridge was one who did.

November was also the month of Rang Tan. This short film, narrated by Emma Thompson, was originally produced by Greenpeace to use with schoolchildren. Iceland supermarket tried to use it as their Christmas TV advert, but fell foul of an obscure clause in the regulator's rules. However the result was an internet sensation that led to 60 million people watching the film, and a good number of Mumsnet shoppers ditching Waitrose for the frozen food retailer.

Our own contribution to the battle against destructive palm oil was to take to the streets of Manchester to get people to be photographed sending a message to Oreo. Once again we had a good turnout of volunteers, including new photographer Moe, and a lot of support from Manchester folk.

At the end of the month Matt, Helen and I are down in Canonbury Villas for the annual Greenpeace Local Groups Conference. Our privatised railways did their bit to try to stop me, with both my trains out and back being very late. However when I got there it was great to meet old friends again. Greenpeace appeared to have learnt their lesson from last year and just ordered bottles of beer, rather than a whole barrel, and so I still felt vaguely human on Sunday morning. Before I went down though I'd quickly edited a first rush of a 'Best of 2018' video. I got it on Greenwire and it was noticed by the ED, which was a Brownie point for Manchester.

I had to sing for my supper though by giving a presentation on how we ran the Manchester Group, which caused a little bit of a problem as we weren't entirely sure ourselves how we did run it. At the start of the month we'd got the bad news that Russia, China and Norway had all vetoed the Antarctic sanctuary, but we got the hint that there would be some good news on our other campaigns soon.


Greenpeace local group campaigning pretty much came to an end in December. However that didn't stop it being our most successful month of the year.

Firstly, VW appeared to have shifted their position significantly. After refusing to meet Greenpeace all year they relented after the action in Milton Keynes. The main news their ED wanted to pass on to ours was that he was resigning! However shortly afterwards came a more important announcement: VW were ditching the internal combustion engine and going electric. Not quick enough for us, but still significant news.

Then came the news that our Oreo campaigning had been effective. Mondelez International, the parent company that owns Oreo, as well as a load of familiar British brand names like Cadbury's, Terry's and Fry's, had got together with other palm oil users and put pressure on Wilmar International, their palm oil supplier in Indonesia. This pressure led to Wilmar announcing a raft of measures, including satellite surveillance of their suppliers, to try to stop deforestation. They will need to be kept an eye on to ensure they keep their promises, but it was a great victory.

The next bit of good news came from Brazil, where a court stopped Total's effort to drill off the Amazon Reef. This wasn't necessarily the end of BPs bid, but it made it extremely unlikely to succeed.

The final bit of good news had very little to do with either myself or Greenpeace, but was still very welcome. Fracking at Preston New Road had been repeatedly halted over the previous few weeks due to minor earthquakes. Cuadrilla had previously agreed a low threshold for stopping operations, but now they were asking the government to raise the limit. We don't know what the government's reply was, but just before Yule Cuadrilla took away all their compressors and started to dismantle the rig. We don't know if this really is it, but it was certainly not part of the plan.

So that was 2018. We failed in the Antarctic and the tangerine fascist is still in the White House. However on VW, on palm oil, on the Amazon Reef and finally on fracking in the UK we were making progress. Minor victories, in the grand scheme of things, but it's minor victories that keep us going.

And so it's on to 2019. This year we change the world, as I said last year.