Chapter 27 (1980-1982)

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In September 1980 the Ministry of Defence was asked to send a team of experts to Cairo to assist the Egyptian Armed Forces in reconstructing their Command organisation following their daring crossing of the Suez Canal into Sinai, which nearly destroyed the Israeli Army but had run out of steam in the desert, with disastrous results. I and my boss, Michael Bell, a young Oxford historian, were ordered to join this team, which consisted of Army, Navy and Air Force officers and one other civilian, for the three-week mission. Our group, a dozen strong, flew first class by Egypt Air and were royally received in Cairo, provided with Army cars and accommodated at the Meridien, a superb hotel on a small island on the West bank of the Nile. From my room I had a vista of the river and city which was breathtakingly beautiful, and the cuisine was what one would expect from a five-star hotel. A large swimming pool on the edge of the Nile beckoned invitingly though venturing into the river itself was strictly discouraged because of the danger of catching a distressing disease called bilharzia, carried by the snails which infested the water.


We soon found that we should have little time to enjoy these luxuries. At 8.15am we were collected by our drivers and swept at breakneck speed through the crowded streets with utter disregard for the life and limb of other citizens. The Army influence was paramount and nobody argued with us. Arriving at a large military headquarters in the city, we embarked upon a day of lectures lasting till around 6pm when we hurtled back to our hotel, often returning for a further session after dinner or working till the small hours on the next day's lectures. The Egyptians had been supported by Russian military advisers and equipment ever since the Suez Canal debacle and were enmeshed in the Soviet military (but not political) system. However, they had very recently fallen out, partly because the Russians had advised them inadequately on the conduct of the Sinai campaign (or so our Army colleagues said), and partly because they were being asked to pay for replacing equipment which was now pretty run down. They had selected Britain to help them reorganise after considering the structures and methods of several other countries including the USA and France, and we were determined to give them good value.


The Egyptians had four Arms against our three - an Army, Navy, Air Force and Air Defence Force. Their officers were tough, fierce, battle-hardened men of considerable intelligence. None of us spoke Arabic but all of them could converse passably in English and it was a strange experience to lead a class of thirty quite senior officers in an earnest discussion of their Command structure and the degrees of delegated authority down through the ranks. At first they were reluctant to disclose too much about their operating methods but a mutual trust soon developed and there would often be heated arguments among them, all in English, while we listened with rapt attention. We formed a high opinion of their dedication and, within the limits of a less well developed organisation than our own, their efficiency.


In addition to seeing the Pyramids and the famous Cairo Museum of Antiquities, we were taken one day to the site of the attack on Sinai, where the banks of the Suez Canal had been breached using high-pressure hoses, enabling the Egyptian Army to appear in strength at a point least expected by the Israelis. Later we swam in a wide stretch of the Canal at Ismailia, where the Major-General in charge of the re-organisation challenged anyone to beat him to a lighthouse on the far distant side and back. Some accepted but no-one beat him. Mustafa Ismail was a cultured man with keen intelligence and intense energy, fierce with his officers who were clearly terrified of him, and determined to see Egypt become the strong leader of the Arab world. But one had to realise that the possibility of assassination was never far away from senior officers and in fact President Anwar Sadat and his Army Chief of Staff were gunned down not long after our visit. General Ismail's charming wife spoke only French, which put me on my mettle when placed beside her at dinner at the hotel where the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel had been signed - the alleged cause of Sadat's murder.


Our officers wore their British uniforms most of the time, the Egyptians pointing out wrily that they were the first to walk the streets of Cairo thus since 1956, when Britain and France unsuccessfully attempted to sieze control of the Suez Canal. At the end of the course our hosts flew us by military Hercules to Abu Simbel, near Egypt's southern border with Sudan, where in an internationally financed operation the great temples had been painstakingly moved stone by stone to safety when threatened with inundation by Lake Nasser. This huge stretch of water was formed when a dam on the Nile was constructed at Aswan, an enterprise which reluctance of Western countries to finance had led directly to President Nasser's nationalisation of the Canal and the Anglo-French invasion. The bankers had been right: solar evaporation from Lake Nasser greatly exceeded estimates and reduced its value, while the loss of flood water and mineral deposits, which from pre-history had been the Nile's gift to Egypt, had disastrous effects right down to the Nile Delta and into the Mediterranean fishing grounds. Although by far the most populous state of the Arabic-speaking world, Egypt above the Nile Delta is seen from the air to consist of a very narrow strip of rich green cultivation either side of the river. All else except coastal towns is brown desert with a very occasional oasis.


From Abu Simbel, we flew to Aswan where cataracts restrict river traffic and where, incidentally, in the previous century Kitchener had tarried on his way to rescue General Gordon at Khartoum in the Sudan, arriving in time to find Gordon's head displayed on the walls of the city. This is the home of the Nubians, a tall, dark-skinned people of great charm identified in early Egyptian, Biblical and Roman records. An early morning train journey took us to Luxor where we visited the great temple at Karnak and crossed the Nile to see the Valley of the Kings and the tombs of the Pharaohs, thence by plane to Cairo for our return to London.


In 1981 Freda and I embarked upon a venture which was to give a completely new dimension to our lives: we bought a studio apartment in the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. Siesta One was a new building at the foot of a large hill overlooking Alcudia, a town in the North of the island and once the capital of Mallorca but now replaced by Palma, about an hour's drive to the South. We were encouraged to buy by Freda's brother Peter and his wife Myra, who had already bought a similar apartment in the same block. Mallorca is a beautiful island, belonging to Spain and Spanish-speaking though its indigenous people have a language more akin to French. Alcudia was at that time a dreamy, ancient town with narrow streets, a cathedral and a busy market, overlooking the Bay of Alcudia whose beaches of pure golden sand stretch literally for miles. We set about furnishing the apartment, purchased two new bicycles, and soon had a second home which we could reach in as little as six hours from door to door.


We had very many happy holidays in Alcudia and a few years later, after my retirement, we exchanged the apartment for a small bungalow in a tiny community called Betlem on the opposite side of the Bay of Alcudia. Betlem nestled beneath a magnificent range of mountains, reached by a narrow road which passed the small fishing harbour of San Pedro, then petered out. The population was around two hundred, nearly all foreigners including some American families, and the estate was managed according to Spanish law by a committee of local residents. Our home was one of about twenty in a cluster known as Portixol at the very edge of the sea, overlooking the wide blue sweep of the Bay. In Spring the gardens of Portixol were a blaze of flowers and in the hills and fields around us wild plants of many kinds burst into colour. It was a veritable Garden of Eden. In winter the seas could be grey and violent, the skies leaden, and the smoke of wood fires - there is no coal in Mallorca - heavy in the air; but still it was bliss and we frequently found we were almost the only residents in Portixol. However, the appearance of a melanoma cancer on my face which required surgery meant an end to sunbathing and, neither Brian nor Carolyn being in a position to contemplate owning foreign property, we decided to sell.


Back in Britain, 1980 had opened a decade of change whose like had not been seen since 1945. Major nationalised services such as gas, steel, electricity, telephones and water were transferred to private companies, most, it must be admitted, initially leading to better, more efficient service. (Later, we were to discover that they were also wide open to being taken over by non-British companies from all over the world). But the most notable of Mrs Thatcher's achievements in the public eye was undoubtedly the way in which the Government broke another miners' strike. By skilfully building up stocks of coal, banning secondary strike action, and exploiting a genuine reluctance for strike action at some pits, the Government turned the tide and the strike ended. Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader, had alienated large sections of the country by his refusal to agree to a ballot on whether or not to strike. He had already brought down one Government and destroyed its leader; he thought, wrongly, that he could do it again.


The years had passed with accelerating speed and it seemed that in no time 1982 arrived. I would be 60 years old on the 18th December and would have to retire under Civil Service rules. But it was to be a memorable year in an unexpected way. I mentioned earlier the most unwise decision to withdraw Britain's only warship from the South Atlantic in the hope of saving a relatively paltry sum of money. The Falkland Islands were first discovered by an English navigator in 1592 and from 1764 were home to groups of colonists from France, Spain, Argentina and Britain. The Argentinians were actually expelled by the US Corvette Lexington in 1826 after interfering with some US seal hunters, and Britain formally claimed the islands in 1833. For some years, in pursuit of expansionist claims of its Dictator, Galtieri, Argentina had been pressing for the Falkland Islands, which they called Las Malvinas, to be handed over to her. Military advice to our Government was that the Argentinians would interpret the warship's withdrawal as an admission that Britain was not prepared to defend the islands, but this advice was not only ignored but was actually suppressed by the Foreign Office. Had she been aware of all its implications, I cannot think that Margaret Thatcher would have allowed the situation to develop as it did, though the Defence Secretary of the time was party to the folly of withdrawing HMS Endurance.


On the 2nd April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and also South Georgia, a British possession 800 miles further South. The small Royal Marine detachments at each place were over-run and taken prisoner. Britain threatened reprisals which Argentina scorned and there followed frantic negotiation through the United Nations, largely sponsored by the Americans whose much-respected General Haig made great efforts to find an honourable solution to a conflict which would benefit no-one. The Argentinians would have none of it. There is little doubt that without the fierce determination of the British Prime Minister their gamble would have succeeded. As it was, Britain hastily assembled a Naval Task Force which set off to recapture the islands, 8,000 miles away.


The feeling of shock and disbelief in Britain was rather like that of September 1939. But within the Ministry of Defence I saw the great war machine, which had been ticking over for nearly forty years, slip smoothly into top gear. Among the very few who had been there then, my mind went back to 1939 when I saw a similar awakening of the slumbering giant. How strange that this should happen in my very first and last years of service. Of course, it was not total war this time and much normal Ministry work still went on.


Fortuitously, I had just been put in charge of a sizeable team to undertake an in-depth study of the RAF's support services with particular reference to levels of aircraft repair, which ranged from First Line maintenance of machines in their hardened airfield bunkers down to Fourth Line repair at contractors' works in the UK. In visiting stations and depots across the country we were able to see how the needs of the Task Force were being met. While looking at shortcomings in supply lines, we found one item consistently not available when demanded. It was described as a "square wave generator" and its significance in the weapons systems of a modern aircraft was demonstrated during a visit to the large RAF Station at Bruggen in Germany. When a chance Argentine missile attack sank the supply ship Atlantic Conveyor, air support for the Falklands operation was gravely jeopardised by the loss of these and other vital pieces of equipment. The Falklands operation appeared to the public as primarily a Naval and Army campaign, under the command of a Rear Admiral and a Major-General Royal Marines; but there was little publicity for the heroic efforts of the RAF's supply services in keeping the Harriers and helicopters flying.


The Argentinians surrendered on 12th June and there is no need to describe the Falklands campaign further, so much has already been written about it. But the Falklands war was probably the last major campaign which the British would ever be able to mount alone. Afterwards, the Armed Forces were reduced appreciably and many of their vital supporting services placed in private hands with the loss of thousands of skilled workmen and technicians. Market forces became the dominant, almost exclusive, consideration in the conduct of public business and the concept of a vocation in the public service was held to be of little account. Later generations must judge whether the concomitant emphasis on economy and perceived "performance" was an improvement or not. One result, however, was that the dedicated workforce of the Dockyards, Ordnance Factories, Air Repair Workshops and many other establishments, whose superhuman efforts had made the success of the Falklands Task Force possible, became employees of private companies whose prime duty was to their shareholders. Not only was the tradition of generations of service to the Crown discarded in favour of a bald contractual relationship, but the departmental machinery through which it could be instantly mobilised in an emergency was swept away.


An interesting sequel to the Falklands war concerned a former colleague of mine named Clive Ponting, who had been engaged in a parallel investigation to my own under Derek Rayner and with whom I sometimes exchanged views on the progress of our respective studies. This gentleman later went to DS5 - my previous Division - where he was concerned during the Falklands war with the Rules of Engagement for British warships. He earned lasting notoriety by secretly leaking to a Labour Member of Parliament a document purporting to show that the Prime Minister had misled Parliament over the exact date on which the British nuclear submarine Conqueror had torpedoed and sunk the Argentine cruiser Belgrano. This action, which all military opinion - including that of the Belgrano's own Captain - considered had been justified to safeguard the Task Force, aroused intense passion among many of our left-wing intelligentsia, who had opposed British involvement in the first place and were infuriated when we actually won. The precise time of the event, within what in reality amounted to a matter of hours, seemed to me to have very little significance, but the opportunity to accuse the Prime Minister of that most heinous of all crimes, lying to the House of Commons, was one which some MPs could not resist, and Mrs Thatcher was bitterly attacked, to the extent of the Opposition demanding a special debate. When questioned by the police, Ponting protested his innocence, thereby implicating his staff, but was eventually trapped by minute marks which identified the machine on which the document had been copied. He was of course lionised by the Press and Broadcasting media as a champion of the public conscience, and although he was indicted, the authorities found it difficult to frame a suitable charge against him. At the Old Bailey he was found Not Guilty of a criminal act but was nevertheless sacked from the Civil Service.


The nation returned with relief from the ending of the war to the more desirable ways of peace. There was heartfelt happiness and justifiable pride in our military success, mixed with great regret that it had ever been necessary to embark upon the enterprise. With typical cynicism, many of her opponents attacked Mrs Thatcher for inviting them to share in the national rejoicing, and in fact held it against her for the rest of her political life.


At the Ministry of Defence things rapidly went back to normal. I had been promoted to Senior Principal and concluded the extensive study of maintenance and engineering support for the RAF, and another into the future organisation for repair and refitting of the Fleet. The remaining months of 1982 sped by at ever-increasing speed and the fateful day, 18th December 1982, was suddenly there. I had come to know literally hundreds of people in all walks of the Government Service and I held a large party in what had been the ballroom of Northumberland House, haunt of King Edward VII and his lady-friend the actress Lily Langtree at the turn of the Century but now part of the Ministry of Defence. Freda stood at my side as I made my farewell speech. Nice things were said, I received cherished gifts, and at 6pm I surrendered my pass and walked out of the building. The doors of the Defence Departments, through which I had been accustomed to pass at any hour of the day or night and on every day of the year during the previous forty four years, closed behind me for the last time. And on a chapter of Britain's long history.


The final Act unfolded when within a few weeks I received a letter from 10, Downing Street saying that the Prime Minister proposed to recommend to Her Majesty that I be awarded the OBE, that is to say to become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Freda, Brian and Carolyn accompanied me to the Palace where the decoration was pinned upon me by the Queen herself. Carolyn's first child, Rowena, was only weeks old and could not be left at home, so Joan Desprez gallantly offered to look after her in the car in the inner courtyard of the Palace, assisted by admiring policemen, until we emerged. It was a glittering, unforgettable occasion, ending a lifetime during which the mighty British Empire itself had faded into History, its name lingering only in the Order of which I had just become an Officer. But its imprint on the world remains in the form of the millions of people for whom English is either their mother tongue or an essential second language, and whose countries inherited a system of democratic rule and honest public service on which to build their future.

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