Keeping the peace

E.S. Turner

  • March to the South Atlantic: 42 Commando Royal Marines in the Falklands War by Nick Vaux and Max Hastings
    Buchan and Enright, 261 pp, £11.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 907675 56 5
  • Further Particulars: Consequences of an Edwardian Boyhood by C.H. Rolph
    Oxford, 231 pp, £12.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 19 211790 4

The French Marshal MacMahon said: ‘I shall remove from my promotion list any officer whose name I have seen on the cover of a book.’ He spoke for high commanders everywhere. ‘Damn your writing, mind your fighting’ was the snub likely to greet a British officer with literary pretensions. The Duke of Cambridge opposed the founding of the Army Journal and the Cavalry Journal on the grounds that nothing but indiscipline could result from allowing serving officers to discuss their profession in print. These scribbling fellows could be ruthless self-advertisers, like Churchill and Baden-Powell. There was nothing wrong with an officer giving himself a manly pseudonym and writing about pig-sticking in Blackwood’s – or, of course, with a general writing his memoirs on retirement. Today serving officers appear to suffer no untoward restraints. Nick Vaux, who led 42 Commando Royal Marines in the Falklands, waited only for his brigadier, Julian Thompson, to write No Picnic before weighing in with March to the South Atlantic.

Vaux is now a general. He writes lucidly, robustly, as befits a soldier, but is not ashamed to reveal his inner feelings (or to mention how, in a scramble up the slopes of Ascension, he and a fellow officer picked posies for two women officers aboard Canberra). His book is a detailed account of 42 Commando’s progress from Plymouth to Port Stanley, immediately after returning from winter training in North Norway. At the age of 46 he was responsible for the lives of six hundred-odd men whose average age was below 20. It was his first martial adventure since Suez, in which he was a 20-year-old subaltern, and since then the weapons and communications had advanced unrecognisably.

As a troopship, Canberra proved to be a cushy bit of STUFT (Shipping Taken Up From Trade), but Vaux’s task was to keep his men lean and mean. If it had to be done by belting out boisterous songs ‘in the most appalling taste’ about the ‘Spics’ in the Malvinas, well and good: but the men sang those last-night-of-the-Proms songs as well. ‘The time had come to stimulate rather than suppress the potential for violence that simmers within élite forces.’ Before they set off for their two weeks’ ordeal in the mountains, the men saw what Exocet missiles could do, and some of them, at Goose Green, had glimpsed what dead comrades look like.

Their commanding officer, who admits to being impatient and irascible, had a physical problem. Thanks to all that steeplechasing and skiing, his back was liable to seize up and the last thing he wanted was to become a ‘casevac’. He nearly became a corpse in an inadvertent ambush by our own troops on Mount Kent, but the regimental sergeant-major ‘averted disaster, as RSMs so often do’. He was also very conscious that the age-gap between himself and the Commando HQ was more than ten years. ‘They needed to have confidence in my judgment, confidence which could not be risked by my revealing too many reservations, or seeking too much reassurance.’ At a critical stage the colonel had the opportunity to pull back his hungry, half-frozen men to rest, at risk of missing the chance ‘to fight a proper battle’ – a battle that might squander young lives. ‘Withdrawal smelt of failure, and spelt obscurity.’ The Commando was not a force to relish obscurity, so it was not pulled back.

The campaign had surreal aspects. One morning, waking from a damp doze on the open hillside, the colonel heard, from the other side of some rocks, a voice apparently engaged in casual telephone conversation. The accents were not those of the future editor of the Daily Telegraph, who was swanning around somewhere, but of an SAS colonel – ‘a sophisticated and intellectual Guards officer’ who had come along (as he said) ‘for the ride’ and was conversing by satellite with a colleague in the United Kingdom. A cause for irascibility? Mildly, the author says: ‘It underlined to me the pressures, as well as the advantages, of space-age communications. These will inevitably become an irresistible lure for “chairborne tactics”, as we were already discovering. But independent reports or individual opinions bypassing Divisional Headquarters seemed equally likely to create misunderstandings at one end of the command chain or another.’ It was not really the time for such reservations, on that moon-like terrain scourged by katabatic (down-rushing) icy winds. The night’s dry socks had to be exchanged for yesterday’s wet ones, since it would have been disastrous to have no dry socks for the next night. The risk was old-fashioned ‘trench foot’, likened by someone in No Picnic to having a foot tightened in a vice while being dipped into boiling water. Alternatively there was the risk of having a foot blown off by a mine.

The idea was not so much to kill the enemy, since that might encourage the survivors to fight more desperately, but to induce as many as possible to surrender. If the Argentine officers and NCOs tried to stop men throwing down their arms, these officers and NCOs had to be picked off, until demoralisation was complete. This was the harsh logic of the game – as logical as having snipers lurking near the military funeral of an Argentinian, in case the mourners’ emotion turned to violence. The enemy positions were often no pleasure to overrun, since it was the defenders’ custom to defecate where they were, rather than in an appointed spot. But their fine leather boots were well worth seizing.

There are some colourful descriptions of modern weapons in action, notably those wire-guided, computer-controlled Milan rockets which were rarely fired in training because they were too expensive. Faced unexpectedly with a fair prospect of Port Stanley 15 kilometres away, the Commando successfully – and, as it were, by popular demand – lobbed a couple of old-fashioned artillery shells into the barracks, to lower enemy morale and perhaps raise that of the townsfolk. Vaux is candid about the mistakes that were made and acknowledges timely help from the weather and enemy indiscipline. When at last the Commando reached Port Stanley, having lost only two lives, they were quartered in a riddled aircraft hangar which had been used as a charnel-house and still had a body in a wheelbarrow and a pile of limbs. As a last surreal touch, news of the truce signed in the Secretariat building along the road reached the troops after being bounced by satellite to the BBC World Service. ‘For once the BBC had been neither premature nor indiscreet.’

The author can always find a couple of adjectives to describe his comrades in arms. ‘Sophisticated and intellectual’ is perhaps atypical; more usual are ‘bright and forthright’, ‘resolute, ebullient’, ‘crisp and confident’, ‘enormous, forceful’, ‘fresh-faced, conscientious’, ‘vigorous and robust’, ‘solid, urbane and reassuring’ and ‘lean, uncompromising, glowing in the face of physical challenge’. The kind of men, in fact, who when interviewed on television, in whatever context, give the clearest impression in a muddled world that they know exactly what they are doing, that it is worth doing and that they enjoy doing it. Whether they had any doubts about the Falklands venture does not emerge: their task was to repel the Queen’s enemies and their concern was to uphold unit pride and the profession of arms. The author tells how the sight of Canberra’s homecoming caused an American colonel to weep, because it was the sort of welcome ‘we did not get after Vietnam.’ Writes Nick Vaux: ‘who can say how long resolve could have been maintained without support from the nation?’ He is inclined to shake his head over the nation’s lavish contributions to the South Atlantic Fund, because of the anomalies it created. There is no special compensation for having a foot blown off in Northern Ireland.

The literary policeman used to receive as little encouragement as the literary soldier, and probably still does. He was a rare bird anyway. One rash letter to an editor could all but ruin his career. He had to wait for retirement and then rustle up one of those books on ‘My Famous Cases’, the equivalent of the general’s memoirs. C.H. Rolph, otherwise Cecil Rolph Hewitt, was a policeman who lived dangerously by contributing to the New Statesman while still a Chief Inspector. Born in the year Queen Victoria died, he has already written one autobiography, Living Twice (1974), which he followed with London Particulars (1980), a more detailed account of his years up to 1918. Further Particulars comes as a mopping-up operation covering the rest of his life. It does not rerun the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial, about which he published a book, or deal at length with his favourite editor, Kingsley Martin, whose biography he wrote. There is no law against writing one’s life twice over, if there is good ore still to be delved, but it can mean fobbing off the reader with ‘as I have described elsewhere ...’

It is hard to believe, from these ruminative and discursive pages, that their author ever patrolled the streets with a truncheon. Some of those who think of him as a perdurable pillar of the Left may be surprised by his crusty middle-class attitude to the cult of scruffiness, the wanton misuse of the English language, the vileness of the Cockney tongue (which ruled out his first adolescent girlfriend) and his hankering for a world in which every Englishman wore a hat. At the start of this book he is a well-read 17-year-old clerk in a London firm of garment manufacturers, prone to informing people, courtesy of Marx, that ‘religion is the opium of the people.’ He remembers the first Two Minutes Silence of 1919, which caught him on the hop in the street: it was, as I can confirm, an emotion-charged, interminable, almost unbearable ordeal. In succeeding years it was no doubt his task, as PC Hewitt in the City of London Police, to check infringements of the Silence. He served in the days when Blackfriars Bridge was a solid mass of sheep being chivvied to Smithfield by dogs. His duties involved waking up the sleeping drivers of vegetable carts bound for Covent Garden, even though the horse well knew the way. The noise of horse-drawn traffic was such that hospitals were allowed to spread straw on the streets. Ordinary householders, we are told, lost this privilege in 1888, but perhaps that was in the City only: elsewhere in London, for many years afterwards, straw was put down for the gravely ill and even for women lying in, and was last used in Marylebone in 1932 to comfort the dying Arnold Bennett. One of the street offenders whom PC Hewitt moved on was an unlicensed vendor of worthless German marks, sold as souvenirs; another was the boorish Sir Thomas Beecham, whose car was creating a gross obstruction. He tells us that in 1926, the year of the General Strike, the High Wycombe furniture makers were called on for lorry loads of chair legs for use as emergency truncheons. In 1927 the author took part in the hilarious raid by massed police on the premises in Moorgate of the Russian trading organisation Arcos, suspected of plotting subversion in India, if not nearer home.

As a handy officer with a pen, he became a sort of police scrivener, one of his tasks being to produce a police instruction manual to replace the one which said that policemen must not stand or sit talking to servants (shades of PC Cuddlecook). The fact that he was also contributing to the New Statesman was, as it turned out, no secret to his Commissioner, who turned a blind eye (‘it was a bit like writing in praise of blood sports while employed by the RSPCA’). When, in 1946, he joined the New Statesman he was able to modify, as tactfully as possible, the anti-Police attitudes which prevailed. Forty years on he finds his old paper ‘a far more dyspeptic weekly burp, with a demonology which puts the police on about the same level as Himmler, Count Dracula and the KGB’.

The ex-policeman had much to get off his chest. During his long stint at the Old Bailey (and how he despises those books by retired policemen on famous Old Bailey trials!) he had smouldered at the contempt with which witnesses were treated, especially by one notorious counsel with a face ‘like a deeply offended hake’. This lawyer’s idea of ‘deadly’ cross-examination ran: ‘Something tells me, you know, that you are not quite so stupid as this. But just in case I’m mistaken, let me see if I can put it another way.’ Jurors were alternately neglected and bullied. Rolph is against the challenging of potential jurors without cause, but in favour of jury vetting, given the wide catchment area from which jurors are now trawled. He finds ‘endlessly astounding’ the complacency with which the public accepts the failure of judges to award costs to those against whom a prosecution fails or is withdrawn, but with hindsight the failure of the judge to award costs to Penguin in the ‘Lady Chatterley’ case – bearing in mind all that silly defence evidence – was surely not the worst of injustices?

When the Parole Board was founded, Rolph’s status was such that he was at once appointed to it. The experience left him heavily disillusioned. The Board, consulting offenders’ files, and steeped in a jargon all its own, conducted ‘a mystic process by which bad men were changed into good ones by being in prison, and a trained eye could recognise the moment when they were’. That moment tended to be when the offender had a year more to serve. Rolph suggested to the Labour Party Penal Affairs Group that the best thing to do with the parole system was to abolish it, an idea which ‘made roughly the same impact as a rose petal dropped into the Grand Canyon’.

‘I do not believe,’ says the Old Inspector, ‘that in the seventy years I am now reviewing, all the “imaginative and experimental penology” in the world has made any significant difference to the incidence of crime, anywhere.’ However, ‘any change in the method or apparatus of punishment makes the punishers feel better, and their supporters feel better with them. Something is being done. And this, I must suppose, is a good thing.’ The Far Left will feel that Rolph has mellowed overmuch and that his style is reprehensibly witty and civilised. But his record as a social critic is an impressive one. He must have narrowly escaped being sent to the Lords.