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The more I learn, the gladder I am that Soviets never did swarm across the border between East and West Germany. It appears that retired British generals seem to think it is now safe to reveal that the British Army of the Rhine was barely even a tripwire and had little chance of containing any westward Soviet thrust. It was a just a big con-trick. Though, who was being conned is open to question. I suspect it was not the Soviets. The BAOR had to cannibalise its entire tank fleet simply to provide enough working Challengers for the two armoured brigades needed to take part in the 1991 First Gulf War. Basically, the BAOR's tank force back in West Germany was partially dismantled scrap until those two brigades returned from the Middle East. The British plan in the face of the Red Tide was for the infantry to engage the Soviet armoured columns pouring onto the plains of West Germany with wire controlled missiles while their tanks somehow manoeuvered themselves into position for a supposedly decisive flank attack. The problem was that the infantry's Milan missiles could not penetrate the front armour of the Soviet tanks. It was, as one recently retired general said, like telling a boxer he can only punch sideways. The Milan only worked against sides and rear of Soviet tanks. The plan only worked if the Soviets insisted on reversing across the German plains in their tanks. I also have serious doubts to whether Britain's generals were a professional match for their Soviet counterparts. During the last couple of years of Second World War the Soviets handled their armoured forces far more professionally and proficiently than their British contemporaries. I suspect throughout the so-called Cold War the Soviet High Command continued to value professionalism, innovation, and imagination at a higher level than the Old Boys' network foisted on the British Army. Nuclear weapons would quite possibly have been needed within hours rather than days of the Soviets kicking off their attack. 

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All this recent talk of the 20th anniversary of the British hand-over of Hong Kong to the Communist Chinese reminded me of one of the tenuous links I have to that far-off city. I used to live in the old basement servants' quarters in the old house of the guy who signed the 99-year-lease on the New Territories; the expiration of which triggered the hand-over. I was surprised when I arrived to discover I was sharing a home not only with the owners but with one of the guys who had been a copyboy at the Evening Times when I was a copyboy at the Glasgow Herald. I thought the Times copyboys were a great bunch - with one exception. You guessed it, the exception was was my surprise housemate. He was a sly snide git. So, it was not great surprise when Mr Snide and the landlady were overheard on the stairs sniggering and slagging me and my room-mate Dennis off. That should have perhaps been a warning about what was to come. We all used to pay the rent three or four months in advance. The rent included use of the kitchen upstairs. Then, after we'd handed over the second three or four months in advance the landlady announced the kitchen was now out of bounds to us. By this time, Mr Snide had moved on. The three of us remaining lodgers were students, we could not afford to eat out every night or buy take-away food. We needed to be able cook our own food. It was a very unpleasant surprise. But I don't think the landlady should have been surprised when we found alternative accommodation before she could get her posh but grubby hands on the third instalment of rent in advance .  Maybe another time I'll tell you about how she locked all her tenants out of the house to punish one who had offended her. Once again, by then Mr Snide had moved out. 

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I was a more than a little uncomfortable recently at the Canadian coverage of a Canadian special forces sniper apparently setting a world record for killing at a distance. The fatal shot was something over three and half kilometres and fired by a soldier from JTF2 attached to a training team in Iraq. Much of the coverage was celebratory and revelled to a pornographic level in the technical aspects of the shot - stuff like allowing for wind strength and direction, the curvature of the earth, etc. I suspect much of this so-called technical information was left over from the Hollywood publicity material for the film American Sniper. I just don't think killing another human being is a matter for public celebration. It sometimes has to be done but it is not something that should be loudly applauded by people who were not there. Did those who wolfed down the discussion of windage also want to know how far the enemy soldier's brains, or lung tissue or whatever, were spread across the sand as a result of the large calibre bullet? Sadly, I suspect some would want to know that. War Porn.  

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I've been reading a couple of histories of the First World War and couldn't help noticing that the top United States field commander is always referred to as "Black Jack" Pershing. But that wasn't his nickname. The original version wasn't "Black". The actual word rhymes with Tigger - as anyone who has seen the 1954 British film The Dam Busters will know (you would have thought whoever they used to dub the dog's name change would at least have sounded a little like Richard Todd's Guy Gibson). I've decided not to use General Pershing's actual nickname because I don't want barred from the internet by some webcrawling bot. Or by the kind of retired old fart from the University of Upper Dingley Dell (Est. 2001)  who appoints themselves a super-administrator on Wikipedia. Anyway, the nickname was actually a sneer conferred on Pershing by military cadets at West Point when he taught there. He aroused their contempt by being an advocate for the African-American troopers of the US Army's 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Pershing went against US Army orthodoxy in believing the troopers were just as good as their white counterparts. In the old black and white Westerns, when the cavalry is seen charging across the desert to the rescue, the troopers should in most cases be African-Americans. The Buffalo Soldiers bore the brunt of the campaigns against the Apache. I would like to think that the change in Pershing's nickname was due to some degree of sensitivity. But I doubt it. More probably the way he earned the original was too much of a reminder of a group of warriors who were in the process of being whitewashed out of US military history - the Buffalo Soldiers.    

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Every freelance journalist worth their salt keeps a calendar of forthcoming anniversaries handy. There's nothing like the centenary of an event or at least an anniversary to justify pitching an article on some historic event. But it seems that these days magazines and newspapers are afraid of being "scooped" when it comes to history-related articles. Few seem to wait until the actual anniversary. At first the articles were about a week early. Now they can be a matter of months premature. The centenary of Winston Churchill taking command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers was in January 1916 but I spotted at least one long article about his time in trenches in the summer of 2015.  Articles about the centenary of the start of the First World War in August 1914 began appearing in early 2013 and I think I even saw some in late 2012. By the time August 2014 came around, the number of anniversary articles appeared to be tailing off. So, what's my point? Things are starting to get silly. When is an anniversary piece not an anniversary piece? When it's two years early.

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