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.