The Gurkha Diaries

Any history buff strolling in Old Jerusalem can observe some vestiges of the British Empire. There’s the Mahane Yehuda police station on Jaffa Road, which served during the Mandate. Less than two hours from the capital city of Israel, on the Mediterranean Coast, one can visit the Acre prison where Jewish nationalists were imprisoned, including those who were condemned to death. At least, it was possible to do so when I visited back in 2008.

The rebirth of Israel in 1947-1948 was a direct consequence of the disappearance of the British Empire in the aftermath of World War II. The same year also witnessed the partition between India and Pakistan, a development that would give rise to population displacements and massacres. Robert Atkins, author of The Gurkha Diaries of Robert Atkins MC: India and Malaya 1944 – 1958 (Pen & Sword) and his fellow Gurkhas [the sturdy and legendary Nepalese soldiers who serve the Crown since the middle of the 19th century] were deployed on that theater and attempted “[…] to mitigate the massacres [between Hindus and Muslims] and stem the violence in the last days of a teetering Raj.” The magnitude of the violence perpetrated during that tragic chapter of contemporary history must have been staggering for the young soldiers, but they carried on with admirable bravery, nevertheless.

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Stan Andrews and the birth of the Israeli Air Force

Seventy-five years ago, on November 27, 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 to partition the British mandate in Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. While the new Israelis were celebrating, the leaders of the Yishuv – the organized Jewish community – were scratching their heads. The neighboring Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan wanted to smother the newborn Jewish State in its cradle.

In their new book Fighting Back: Stan Andrew and the Birth of the Israeli Air Force (Wicked Son), authors Jeffrey and Craig Weiss write, “It became clear that a Jewish homeland would only be established by armed force. To defeat the Arabs, the Jews would need to build an army.”

Easier said than done. “On May 14, 1948, the day the government [of Israel] declared independence, Israel did not have a single combat aircraft, and all its fighter pilots were in Europe.” With ingenuity and determination, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his team set upon the gigantic task of equipping their soldiers, notably against a U.S. embargo on weapons sales to the Middle East. At the same time, London presumably continued furnishing Egypt and Jordan.

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The Crown and the Gurkhas

Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell (right) as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding First Battalion 2nd KEO Gurkha Rifles with his Colonel-in Chief, the then Prince of Wales, visiting a training exercise in 1982. (source: Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell)

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In the aftermath of the passing of our beloved Sovereign, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I reached out to one of my favorite military figures, Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Duffell, who is a retired high-ranking officer of the Gurkhas and the former Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong. Sir Peter – who is notably the author of the enthralling book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword) – generously accepted to share his insights with me, in an exclusive piece I am extremely happy to share with you below. These comments detail the relationship between the Gurkhas – who are among the very best soldiers in the world, but who also serve in one of my favorite units in the British Army, with the Scottish Regiments – and the Crown.

Many sincere thanks for sharing this with us on this mournful and historic occasion, Sir Peter!

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In the volume of commentary that has followed the passing of Her Majesty the Queen, almost every aspect of her reign and the life of King Charles III has been well documented including their very personal links with the Armed Forces of the Crown.

Everyone who has served in uniform will have sworn allegiance to Queen and Country and will have been reminded constantly through their titles, insignia, medals, standards and colours of proud and important links with the monarch.

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True heroism can’t be found in the absence of risk

I discovered Admiral (US Navy – retired) James Stavridis as an author at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago. This warrior-intellectual always amazes me by the depth of his thought and the finesse of his writing style. His last book, To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision (Penguin Press) depicts nine characters – 8 men and 1 woman – who left their mark on US military history.

You can almost hear the lyrics of the US Marines hymn and its reference to the shores of Tripoli when you read about Lieutenant Stephen Decatur’s expedition in North Africa to save US Navy comrades detained by pirates and you want to watch Captain Philips with Tom Hanks another time after completing the chapter devoted to Rear Admiral Michelle Howard who was in command of the successful rescue operation in the Gulf of Aden.

But my favorite – by far – was Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller. If there is one chapter I would love to see the author expand in a whole book, the life and lessons of that exceptional warrior would be my choice. Think about it for a moment. You’re an African-American and you enlist in the US Navy to better support your family, seeking advancement out of the segregationist South. But you must still endure sanctioned racism. Admiral Stavridis reminds the reader that “the high-tech specialties of communication, gunnery, navigation, and engineering were closed to African Americans; in fact, the only jobs they were permitted to do were cooking, cleaning, and serving as valets for the senior officers in the ships.”

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One man can change the course of a battle

“The vast majority of men receiving the Medal of Honor in World War II belonged to the infantry but the American public was fixated on marines and the glamour boys in the air corps with their nice blue uniforms”, writes acclaimed author and historian Alex Kershaw in his recent book Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II (Caliber).

Undoubtedly, Alex Kershaw is the master of the battle narrative. His books always remind me of Sir John Keegan’s classic The Face of Battle, in detailing the reality and sacrifices of fighting soldiers. Between the covers, he details the courageous and selfless feats of Maurice “Footsie” Britt, Michael Daly, Audie Murphy and Keith Ware. All these men were part of the “[…] 3rd Division, the legendary “Rock of the Marne” outfit that had saved Paris in July 1918 by blocking the last great German offensive of World War I.” The men of that Division were sent on the first line to absorb a strong German attack along the Marne River in April 1918. The stubbornness of their defense earned them the famous nickname. Their successors in World War II would be no different.

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Top Gun Maverick and the Taiwanese flag – Exclusive interview with Chris Fenton

Chris Fenton (source: Variety.com)

With the release of Top Gun Maverick and all the buzz surrounding the issue of the Taiwan flag on Maverick’s leather jacket, Hollywood former movie executive and author Chris Fenton kindly accepted to answer a few questions for this blog. Needless to say, I was extremely happy to be exchanging with the producer of one of my favorite movies, Iron Man 3.

Here is the content of our exchange.

Mr. Fenton, the last couple of years have been difficult for the United States on the world scene and many observers are pontificating about its supposed loss of power. Do you think Top Gun Maverick is a good shot in the arm of American patriotism?

100% yes. Hollywood content can be an extremely effective tool for soft power. Top Gun is the best example of that.

What is the recipe for the success of that iconic movie?

The star power of Tom Cruise and the brand awareness among global consumers of the original Top Gun film.

The Taiwan flag was not supposed to appear on Maverick’s jacket – from what I remember of the 2019 trailer. Could you tell us why the situation has changed?

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“Putin is clearly trying to ignite a larger conflict” – Martin Dugard

Author Martin Dugard (source: MartinDugard.com)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights (Caliber), Martin Dugard kindly accepted to answer some questions for this blog. I feel privileged for the interview with an excellent and engaging author, who is also the coauthor of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Series.

Here is the content of our exchange.

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Mr. Dugard, where did the idea of writing Taking Paris originate from?

The book actually started as Taking Rome but as the research expanded it became obvious that the story of Rome worked more nicely as a small section in the larger context of the 1940 fall of Paris and 1944 liberation.

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Moscow has no discernible exit strategy in Ukraine

Professor Bettina Renz (source: YouTube)

In the aftermath of my review of her timely and absorbing book Russia’s Miltiary Revival (Polity), author and University of Nottingham Professor of International Security Bettina Renz granted me an interview. I am extremely grateful for her insights, one week from Victory Day parade in Moscow.

Below is the content of our exchange.

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The situation is now a war of attrition with no immediate end in sight.

Professor Renz, considering the last 9 weeks, what is your assessment of the performance of the Russian army in Ukraine? Are you surprised by the way the situation evolved?

Knowing what we know now, the poor performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine is no surprise. On the one hand, the Russian military is numerically and technologically superior to their Ukrainian counterpart. On the other hand, the history of warfare has demonstrated repeatedly that superiority in numbers and kit cannot make up for poor strategy.

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A striking parallel between Zelensky and de Gaulle

I initially wanted to review Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights by Martin Dugard last February, but then Vladimir Putin launched his troops against Ukraine and I had to shuffle my publications calendar. As you will see, there are fascinating parallels between the fate of France in World War II and the current situation in Ukraine, if only at the leadership level.

After the invasion of France by the Germans in May 1940, the country is in disarray and its statesmen have given up. In the ashes of defeat, a temporary brigadier general will rise to the occasion. Fleeing his homeland on board an airplane provided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle left with a “[…] hastily packed suitcase contain[ing] four shirts, one pair of pants, and a single photograph of Yvonne and the children, whose current whereabouts he does not know.” I couldn’t help but think of the same predicament in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found himself on February 24th. As did de Gaulle, he chose to fight, but from home.

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Drone Wars: The Poor Man’s Air Force

A few years ago, I was intrigued to read that President Barack Obama ordered 10 times more drone strikes than his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Since their appearance, drones have become omnipresent on the battlefield and not a week goes by without a news article about their feats.

Incidentally, drones have played a role in the war of aggression launched against Ukraine by Russia in the last few weeks. They are also used in several theaters around the world. In a nutshell, “the drones developed by Israel and then revolutionized by America have now proliferated everywhere”, writes Seth J. Frantzman in Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier Books).

The author writes that everyone wants drones, notably because they are cheaper than airplanes and reduce the potential for human casualties. They have become the “poor man’s air force”. Hence, their use by Houthi rebels in Yemen in the cross-fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia.About this conflict, the Jerusalem Post correspondent and analyst reminds us of a chilling episode when Houthi drones attacked an Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia – “some 1,000 kilometers from Houthi frontlines in Yemen” – in August 2019. The kingdom which ranked in 6th place in terms of military expenditures in the world in 2020 was defenseless in front of this incursion. A real military representation of the biblical tale of David versus Goliath and a manifestation that superpowers are not immune from an attack performed by a “poor man’s air force”.

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