The Gurkhas: Best Soldiers In the World?

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Gurkhas training with US Marines at Camp Lejune, NC in May of 1996. Note the khukuri on the left side of the combat webbing of the Gurkha trooper in the foreground. (Official US Marine photograph)

 The Gurkhas are a warrior tribe from the mountains of Nepal, who have served in various formations in the British Army for hundreds of years and continue to do so under an agreement with the government of Nepal. These famous soldiers are said to be fearless and hence among the best assault troops ever to fight for the British Empire.

In 1994, the British Government, which seems determined to eliminate its military, amalgamated the four existing Gurkha regiments into one regiment: the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Naturally this meant reducing the number of Gurkhas at a time when the British military can’t recruit enough of the Queen’s own subjects to fill the thin ranks of the armed services.

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The khukuri

 

Gurkhas traditionally carry a curved knife known as the khukuri or the “Gurkha blade.” When the Gurkhas fought in the Falklands War, their propensity to slit the throats of their enemies with their khukuris terrified Argentinian soldiers—especially since the Gurkhas can reportedly move at night without making a sound.

The best book on the Gurkhas is Bugles and a Tiger by John Masters. It is his memoir of serving as a British officer with the Gurkhas both before and during the Second World War. He became a novelist after the war (most have been hit in the head by something) and is best known for Bhowani Junction, a novel which depicts the turmoil among Anglo-Indians shortly after the end of the British Raj in 1947. It was made into a movie of the same name starring Ava Gardner and Steward Granger.

I read in the New York Times a few years back that several of the security companies working in Iraq were composed solely of veteran Gurkhas.

If you want to join or learn more about them, you can go to the official website of the Brigade of Gurkhas here:

 http://www.army.mod.uk/gurkhas/27784.aspx

and this link is to an article from the BBC on the Gurkhas:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10782099

 

 

Arms For Russia Now!

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“Arms for Russia – a great convoy of British ships escorted by Soviet fighters sails into Murmansk harbour with vital supplies for the Red Army.” From the National Archives of the UK. 1939-46

For much of World War Two, the Soviet Union was far more popular among the British public than the United States.

There were large demonstrations for “Second Front Now!” That Second Front eventually being the Normandy Invasion. The news of the cataclysmic battles in the Soviet Union between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht led many of the British public to think of the Soviets as better allies than the Americans since the Soviets were fighting and the Americans weren’t. At least, not until June 6th, 1944. US efforts in Italy and North Africa while appreciated, didn’t come close in the minds of the British public with the defeats inflicted on the Wehrmacht by the Soviets. And that is true.
Much of the horrifying detail about life under Stalin and the Bolsheviks wasn’t known to the wider world at the time of World War Two. It took decades for people in the UK and most of the Western world to truly understand how murderous the Stalin regime had been.

The Failure of Royal Navy Aircraft in World War Two

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A Supermarine Seafire landing on board HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, February 1943. This was the naval version of the famed Spitfire.

During the First World War, the British Navy developed a highly successful naval air force called the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS). This entity designed and built naval aircraft to be catapulted from surface ships. Toward the end of the war, a flight deck was added to a RN battlecruiser and the first landing of an aircraft on a ship took place. RNAS trained its own pilots and maintenance crews all of whom were regular Royal Navy officers and other ranks.

After the war, the Royal Navy lost control of their aviation to the Royal Air Force. Part of its brief was to provide the Royal Navy with suitable aircraft and to train aircrew and maintenance crews. This system did not work well and led to absurbdities such as Royal Navy commanders given a sub-lieutenant’s rank in the RAF while they did their pilot or observer training and being treated as such. Additionally, the Royal Air Force, like the US Army Air Force, was controlled by “Bomber Barons.”

These men were only interested in building up their strategic bombing forces and they ignored the the highly specialized aircraft requirements of the Royal Navy. This resulted in a lack of aircraft designed  to be used on aircraft carriers and dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the British naval aviation. Only when the the US came into the war did the RN slowly begin to acquire planes built to withstand the rigor of carrier operations.

As a substitute in the first years of the war, the British Admiralty pressed into carrier service the Seafire, a hastily cobbled together carrier plane created by making slight modifications to the famous RAF Spitfire. Unfortunately, the Spitfire was never desgined to operate from an aircraft carrier. Since the Seafire was nothing but a Spitfire with a few design changes, this was less than a successful solution. That the Spitfire was difficult to fly only added to the problems.

 

 

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A Supermarine Seafire nosed over on the flight deck of HMS SMITER after a landing accident, 1944. Official Royal Navy photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

 

Because of this, two less-than-ideal-things often happened: the landing gear couldn’t take the strain and collapsed. This caused the Seafire to skid on its belly down the steel flight deck which bent the propeller. Second, given the desgin of the Spitfire/Seafire, the aircraft had a tendency to nose forward a bit on landing. On an aircraft carrier, this also caused the propeller to hit the steel deck and bent the propeller.

Machinists on British carriers did not have the ability to fix propellers so badly damaged. Hence, they had to replace them and RN aircraft carriers using Seafires would go through fifty or a hundred replacement propellers in a handful of days when on active operations.

In his memoirs, Admiral of the Fleet Philip Vian, commanding Allied aircraft carriers covering Allied landings off Salerno,  wrote that one exasperated aircraft carrier captain had eight inches sawed of the propeller blades of all his Seafires. This dramatically reduced the number of bent propellers which increased operational readiness dramtically and had no effect on the performance of the aircraft.

Landing on an aircraft aircraft has been described by naval pilots as a “controlled crash.” The deck is so short in relation to a landing strip on the ground that the objective is to get the plane on the deck of the carrier as soon as you can so the arresting wires will catch the tail hook and jerk the plane to a halt.

There were a series of arresting wires, as many as nine on World War Two carriers, so the odds were good that your tailhook would catch one of them. When landing you approached the aircraft carrier from astern and were guided into landing by the “batsman,” (in Royal Navy parlance), an experienced naval aviator with a luminous paddle in each hand.

This was a tricky business. You had to come in low and slow enough to get your plane on the deck of the carrier as soon as you could without crashing into the stern. Trying to do this in a heavy sea with the stern rising and falling required exquisite timing. In bad weather the bow and stern could be rising or falling as much as forty feet in less than a minute.

While the RN regained controlled of naval aviation in 1937, the reformed RNAS, then re-named as the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), never came up to par with the aviation units of either the US Navy or Japanese Navy. Making this more insufferable, it was the Royal Navy which had invented carrier aviation.

The residual anger over their treatment by the RAF in the interwar years, caused a contentious relationship between the RN and the RAF throughout the 1939-1945 war. That RAF pilots did not excel in ship recognition and attacked almost every ship they came across, including RN ships, did not help ameliorate the strain between the services. Neither did the RN response which was to open fire on any aircraft.

The Royal Navy was well aware of the problems with the Seafire but used it because they had no choice until more US planes built for operating of aircraft carriers became available to the British.