Prince Philip at Matapan

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (source: Town & Country Magazine)

During my interview with him about the Battle of Matapan, renowned author and professor Craig L. Symonds suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Richard Porter to get a better sense of what the Duke of Edinburgh accomplished during this fateful day on the sea. Dr. Porter is Curator of The Britannia Museum at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

Being fascinated with Prince Philip in general and his role during World War II in particular, I was extremely happy to get in touch with Dr. Porter, who kindly replied to me despite a demanding schedule. Even though the Duke of Edinburgh is no longer front and center in the news media, I’m sure all the enthusiasts of military history will appreciate this text.

Without further introduction, here is the full content of his response.

A Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life.

Prince Philip was appointed to the WW1 Battleship HMS Valiant in January 1940. He was one of 20 Midshipmen out of a crew of 1200. As he put it, a Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life. He also makes the point that with a crew of 1200 information was not easily relayed to all crew members, even so even the Midshipmen were aware that the Italian Fleet was thought to be at sea. Prince Philip thought that there was definitely a ‘special atmosphere of anticipation as the Fleet put to sea from Alexandria during the night of 27 March’. The Prince’s Action Station was on the Bridge and at night he had control of the port searchlight. From that position he managed to gather roughly what was going on.

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“Write me a victory”

“Wellington cuts an unattractive personal figure”, writes G. E. Jaycock in his groundbreaking book Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo (Pen & Sword). For the huge fan of the Iron Duke in me, such a conclusion came as a shocker. Full disclosure, this book challenged my conceptions of Wellington’s grandeur and I found myself labouring through it more than once. But I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to nuance my understanding.

Mr. Jaycock, who completed a MA degree in history about the Duke of Wellington at Buckingham University, argues that “the existing historiography has largely downplayed or ignored” the fact that Wellington’s command was characterized by “poor inter-personal relationships within the army [which] undermined effectiveness.” And his demonstration doesn’t fail to disappoint.

In short, the idolized figure depicted between the covers is one of an autocratic and aristocratic micro-manager who was unable to accept any kind of blame or responsibility. There was also a vituperate – not to say frankly despicable – side to the British icon that could be resumed in the following anecdote brought forward by the author:

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Prince Philip and the Gurkhas

Sir Peter Duffell (left) introducing HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers at the annual Field of Remembrance on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in November 2012. (source: courtesy of Sir Peter Duffell)

I have always been a huge fan of the Gurkhas, who are among the best soldiers who have served and are still serving for Queen and Country. In that regard, I have the privilege of being in touch with Sir Peter Duffell, author of Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), a former commanding officer of the Gurkhas, who later went on to commanding British Forces in Hong Kong between 1989 and 1992. This impressive and generous military figure also served as British Army’s Inspector General.

Upon learning of Prince Philips’s passing two weeks ago, I wrote Sir Peter to ask him about the relationship between the consort and the Gurkhas. Here’s what he mentioned:

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“Prince Philip was a serious and accomplished naval officer before he was a member of the Royal Family” – Naval Historian Craig L. Symonds

Prince Philip during in service in the Royal Navy (source: The Independent).

In my humble opinion, one of the aspects that deserves the most interest about the Duke of Edinburgh was his military service in the Royal Navy during World War II. As I’m right into reading the French edition of Professor Craig L. Symonds excellent book World War II at Sea (Oxford University Press, 2008, published in French under the title Histoire navale de la Seconde Guerre mondiale and published by Éditions Perrin at the beginning of this year), I submitted a few questions to this internationally renowned specialist about maritime warfare and the significance of Prince Philip’s service in the Royal Navy. Professor Symonds generously accepted to respond to my questions and I am extremely pleased, on this very day when we bid a final farewell to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to share this exchange here.

Anyone interested in learning more about the naval dimension of World War II should definitely get a copy of his insightful and well-written book.

The strategic significance of the battle of Cape Matapan was that it dissuaded Italian naval authorities from attempting to exert influence in the eastern Mediterranean afterward.

In your book, you explain that the Battle of Cape Matapan – in which the late Duke of Edinburgh took part – clipped the wings of Mussolini’s Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. In the larger context of the war, could you tell us more about the significance / importance of the battle?

Continue reading ““Prince Philip was a serious and accomplished naval officer before he was a member of the Royal Family” – Naval Historian Craig L. Symonds”

Don’t be afraid of the mud

11 months ago, right into the first wave of the pandemic, I reviewed Admiral (ret.) William H. McRaven’s excellent book, Sea Stories. Devouring this book was one of the most uplifting moments of this somber period. Not only because I’m a big fan of the author, but also because it is extremely well-written, and the content touched a chord.

That was before I put my hands on Make Your Bed, his shorter previous book which is the companion to the famous commencement speech he gave at the University of Texas in May 2014. While Sea Stories inspired me “from the outside”, Make Your Bed is not in the same category. The 10 life lessons it contains make you dive right into your own life and path. And that’s not always easy.

During his training to become a Navy SEAL, Admiral McRaven was told by one of his instructors: “[…] life isn’t fair and the sooner you learn that the better off you will be.” The purpose of this review is not meant to be autobiographical, but I have no choice but to share a bit of my own story to make you understand why this book has had such a powerful impact on me.

As a young adult, I witnessed my parents’ divorce and suffered greatly from it. In a nutshell, everything kept spiraling from bad to worse, with no end in sight. The temptation to “ring the bell” (a Navy SEAL wanting to quit only needs to ring three times the bell that’s located on the courtyard of the SEALs training camp in Coronado, California) was extremely strong. A few months before the family house was sold, I made a crucial decision. In hindsight, that was the best one I could take. I was moving to the University’s student’s residence. I wanted to be close to my classes, to the library where I spent lots of time and to live with other people my age. It was a huge gamble. After I paid the rent for the first month, I found myself with only 50$ in my pockets.

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“You must think until your head hurts” – Jim Mattis

“Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms, and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I would encounter in my journey through multiple commands, dozens of countries, and many college campuses”, writes former SecDef Jim Mattis in the prologue of his gripping book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House).

In itself, this quote encapsulates the content of the book. Anyone interested in military affairs knows that the US Marines are the shock troops of Uncle Sam. But beneath the pugilistic façade and Spartan aptitudes, these warriors are also tireless thinkers. “You must think until your head hurts », says the author whose intellect is notably evident in the fact that I counted no less that 132 references to books or historical references in the space of just 249 pages of text. You can easily imagine the former Marines General carrying tomes in his backpack during exercises and military operations.

But what’s more impressive in Mattis’ account is the trouble he always took thinking outside the box and broadening the reach of his antennas. “Using a technique I had found in my reading, I intended to gather information that bypassed normal reporting channels by means of “focused telescopes.” I copied this technique from Frederick the Great, Wellington, and Rommel, among others.” Mattis wanted to make sure he stayed grounded on those who shoulder any effort on the battlefield, the foot soldiers.

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Compassion Marched With Patton

Frank Sisson never personally met with General George S. Patton, albeit seeing him fleetingly in his car, twice. Nevertheless, the legendary American warlord left a lifelong impression on the boy from Weleetka, Oklahoma who came to see him as a father figure. “He had been an invisible force that guided me through the days of danger and struggle. General Patton had embodied what our ideals of Americanism were”, writes the author of I Marched With Patton: A Firsthand Account of World War II Alongside One of the U.S. Army’s Greatest Generals.

This touching memoir recounts the harrowing days of war of an ordinary soldier who demonstrated extraordinary values of loyalty, generosity and benevolence. After his father died from appendicitis when he was fifteen and a half, Frank left home to work as a welder in a shipyard in Oakland California in order to support his family. Upon turning 18 years old, he enlisted in the US Army in 1943 and was destined to be part of George S. Patton’s Third Army in the 667th Field Artillery. “From everything I heard, this was the general to serve under.” He would not be disappointed.

On Christmas Day 1944, he crossed the Channel with his comrades and fought in the hedgerows of Normandy before taking part in the Battle of the Bulge and heading to Germany. He would end his military service as a military police inspector in Berlin in the spring of 1946. One of the most poignant episodes of the book is the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “We were walking through hell itself”, says Sisson, who was assigned to help prisoners eating “[…] slowly and in small amount”, because the lack of nutrition for an extended period could damage their digestive system and even cause death.

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Why Wellington Lost the Battle of Memory

On a beautiful June day in 2014, I travelled from Brussels to Waterloo by train. For a long time, I longed to walk the battlefield where one of my favorite military heroes, Arthur Wellesley, earned his laurels. Before ascending the Lion’s Mound with my family, I wanted to visit and spend time at Wellington’s HQ, the iconic house where the famous British warlord spent the night before and after the battle.

Being a huge booklover, I expected to leave with a few tomes about the Iron Duke under my arms. Instead, I was greeted by a bleak, quasi non-existential array of books of the said subject adorning the bookshelves. The only titles offered were of Napoleon and his Marshals. All I could come out with was a Christmas ornament at the effigy of the famous British soldier. An affront, in my humble opinion. I understand why so many people are fascinated and enthralled by the Little Corporal, but to the point of overshadowing his victorious nemesis at the very place where Wellington tried to snatch a few hours of rest? Where he let one of his subordinates, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Gordon die in his camp bed after being mortally wounded during the battle? This sad state of affairs has haunted me for several years now.

That was until I received a copy of the book Waterloo, written by the renowned British historian Alan Forrest, which is part of the Great Battles series published by The Folio Society (the book was originally published in 2015 by Oxford University Press). I have to admit that I regret not having read it before. Not only does it answer my long-lasting question, but it is also written by a masterful author. After all, who would not enjoy reading a passage about Field Marshal Blücher treating a concussion “[…] with an interesting mixture of garlic and schnapps”? And Alan Forrest even makes a mention of my beloved “Cantons de l’Est” (Eastern Townships, in Quebec), where I live.

More seriously, Alan Forrest first tells the reader that Waterloo was a political victory for Wellington and the United Kingdom, serving to plaster the cracks in British national identity and unity, notably in Scotland. The outcome of what happened on 18 June 1815 on the “Morne Plaine” was used to flatter the legendary military ethos of the Scottish people. Having lived for several months in the land of my ancestors, I visited quite a few Regimental Museums and I can attest that the legacy of Waterloo is still extremely vibrant in Caledonia.

Second, the military confrontation in Belgium was not a crucial victory, in the sense that “even if he had won at Waterloo, Napoleon would surely have lost the war, and victory would have provided him with only the briefest of respites.” Furthermore, “Britain already had its hero from the Napoleonic Wars, an unambiguous figure on whom all could agree, in the person of Horatio Nelson. It did not need Wellington […].” The subject of my admiration arrived too late, 10 years after the battle of Cape Trafalgar and did not serve in the right branch of the British Armed Forces. History can be brutal.

Thirdly, there was a question of character. While Napoleon draped himself in the “cult of a heroic French defeat”, his British opponent was the opposite. “Weariness and sadness for the loss of his companions-in-arms made it impossible for him to exult, though his apparent lack of excitement at the scale of his victory was widely assumed to stem from a cold aloofness that would make him a hard man to like and a somewhat ambivalent national hero.” Napoleon did not lose sleep over the death of soldiers, because that was their ultimate duty in war. Wellington was made of a different fabric.

Napoleon could not defeat the British squares and the Prussian reinforcements on the battlefield on that fateful summer day, but he etched himself in the memory – and affection – of future generations. While I will probably never fully embrace this outcome at Waterloo – contributing to my desire to read even more about Wellington – I came to understand what Winston Churchill meant when he said that history would be kind towards him because he would write it. The commander of the British troops would have needed to learn how to become a tragic hero and be able to count on better advocates.

Alan Forrest’s book might not be first pick for those wanting to stick to battle stories, troop movements, logistics and the minutiae of a battle. But it is an excellent explanation of the aftermath and legacy of one of history’s most famous battles. As we approach the Holiday Season, I would highly recommend this excellent book for the history buff in your circle. As we stare down few more weeks of Covid-19 related confinement, I am confident this new (and beautifully bound) edition of Waterloo will be an ideal companion for long winter evenings.

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Alan Forrest, Waterloo, London, The Folio Society, 2020, 224 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ms. Cathleen Williamson, who is in charge of public relations for The Folio Society for generously providing me with a complimentary copy of this fascinating book.

How the IDF fights COVID-19

BGen (ret.) Dr. Daniel Gold. (Source: Israel Hayom)

(version française)

Few months ago, I reviewed Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot’s enthralling book The Weapons Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (St. Martin’s Press). They expose the adaptive and innovative qualities so characteristic of Israel’s ethos – ethos that was essential to its birth, survival and evolution in the family of nations, markedly in the defense sector. I was particularly thrilled to read about Dr. Daniel Gold, current Head of the Directorate of Defense R&D for the Ministry of Defense of Israel and father of the legendary “Iron Dome”, which intercepts and destroys short-range rockets and artillery shells aimed at Israel.

Last June, I was invited by Mr. David Levy, Consul General of Israel in Montreal, to a Zoom conference with Dr. Gold. The theme of the discussion was Israel’s fight against COVID-19.

Apart from realizing the magnitude of Tsahal’s across-the-board involvement in the fight against the pandemic, one of the comments made by Brigadier-General (ret.) Dr. Gold struck me in a particular way. To paraphrase him, in Israel, when there is a crisis, the concerned actors get to work; budgetary concerns come after. This reminded me of a passage in The Weapon Wizards where Dr. Gold is quoted as saying that Israel “[…] didn’t have the luxury of waiting. It needed to survive.” It was then about the development of the Iron Dome, but this tenet now finds a very concrete application with the current pandemic with which we all have to cope.

Following the conference, I was eager to submit a few questions regarding Israel and the pandemic to Dr. Gold, a famous Israeli scientist. I am very grateful towards M. Levy who generously accepted to pass along my list of questions.

You will find below our insightful exchange about the fight against this worldwide pandemic and how Israel plans to prevail.

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My main goal has been, and continues to be, the identification and adaptation of defense technologies, to provide diagnostic tools and clinical solutions in order to meet the urgent challenges of the ongoing events.

BGen (ret.) Dr. Daniel Gold

What role has been played by the Research and Development Department of the Israeli Ministry of Defense in fighting COVID-19?

Since the outbreak of the Corona epidemic, many different organizations have offered their help to the Ministry of Health.

As head of DDR&D at IMOD, my main goal has been, and continues to be, the identification and adaptation of defense technologies, to provide diagnostic tools and clinical solutions in order to meet the urgent challenges of the ongoing events.

I drafted my experts in all disciplines-from AI sensors, robotics to materials, and even some biologists, who are world leading experts in quick, efficient R&D to meet challenging and urgent needs, just like we did with the development of Iron Dome or with the counter-tunnel efforts.

We are leading the National Technology Center for the Combat against the Corona Epidemic to address various aspects of the coronavirus epidemic, and working together with the personnel of MoH, the lsraeli Innovation Authority, the National Security Council, defense industries and many others, to map the current and future needs and to provide quick solutions, prioritized to tackle the most urgent challenges.

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Putin and Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Source: Ynetnews)

(version française)

There are lots of historic and major diplomatic announcements between Israel and Arab countries (UAE and Bahrain) these days, a development in which the United States are directly associated. In the last couple of years, we have observed the existence of another well-frequented diplomatic channel between Moscow and Jerusalem and I was very glad when acclaimed author Professor Mark Galeotti – author of an excellent biography of Vladimir Putin and more recently of A Short History of Russia – accepted to respond to a few questions about the subject a few weeks ago. Here is the content of our exchange.

Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Do you think the election of pro-Russian Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in 2001 played a role in President Putin’s stance about Israel?

I think it certainly helped in that Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention […].

Judging by the number of meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin (10 visits by Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow since 2013 and 2 visits by Vladimir Putin in Israel since 2012), one could think that there is a notable rapprochement between Moscow and Jerusalem. How important is this relationship for the Russian president?

It’s important for both Putin and Russia. Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention – when the IAF bombs Hezbollah positions in Syria, for example, the Russian air defense system there is not activated and clearly they have been forewarned. Likewise, Russia at times shares intelligence with Israel about Iran.

How important are the Middle East issues in Russian domestic politics? Is there a link between Russian domestic politics and President Putin’s relationship with Israel?

Honestly, it’s not really a factor – neither a plus, nor a minus.

Some observers are of the opinion that Israel is just a pawn on Russia’s chessboard. Could Russia become a key strategic ally of Israel in the near future?

That gives Israel too little credit. Yes, it has good relations with Russia (the first drones the Russians fielded were bought from Israel, for example), but it is not going to be anyone’s pawn.

Putin sends the signal that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

You mention it briefly in your book (on page 75), when you mention that President Putin demonstrates “[…] no hint of anti-Semitism”, but could you tell us more about where he stands on the issue and what he does to confront this trend?

One can’t say that he has especially actively fought against it, but his evidently good relations with Israel and also the Chief Rabbi of Moscow are certainly powerful symbols to powerful and ambitious Russians that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

Compared to the trend observable in other East European countries (like Poland for example), what is the current status of anti-Semitism in Russia?

It’s present, of course, but subjectively it feels in decline – in the 1990s one could often see anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls or slurs in the media, but both are much less evident today. In some ways an interesting development is that the extreme nationalists, from whom one might expect some prejudice, actually express respect for Israel in terms of its willingness to stand up for its own interests, with force if need be.

Apart from the President and the Prime Minister, who are the engineers of the relationship between the two countries? Is there any track II diplomacy involved in your opinion?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has been a very significant player in this respect – and, of course, there are many oligarchs and minigarchs of Jewish origins and often dual Russian-Israeli citizenship who act as connectors.

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(version française)

Poutine et Israël

On assiste ces jours-ci à plusieurs annonces diplomatiques historiques et majeures entre Israël et des pays arabes (les Émirats arabes unis et le Bahreïn), un développement auquel les États-Unis sont directement associés. Dans les dernières années, nous avons observé l’existence d’un autre canal diplomatique très fréquenté entre Moscou et Jérusalem et j’étais très heureux que le Professeur Mark Galeotti – auteur réputé d’une excellente biographie de Vladimir Poutine et plus récemment du livre A Short History of Russia – accepte de répondre à quelques questions à ce sujet il y a quelques semaines. Voici le contenu de cet échange.

Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Pensez-vous que l’élection d’Ariel Sharon, qui était notoirement pro-russe, au poste de Premier ministre en 2001 a joué un rôle dans la position du président Poutine sur Israël?

Je pense que cela a certainement aidé, dans la mesure où Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables.

À en juger par le nombre de rencontres entre le Premier ministre Netanyahu et le président Poutine (10 visites de Benjamin Netanyahu à Moscou depuis 2013 et 2 visites de Vladimir Poutine en Israël depuis 2012), on pourrait penser qu’il y a un rapprochement notable entre Moscou et Jérusalem. Quelle est l’importance de cette relation pour le président russe?

C’est important pour Poutine et pour la Russie. Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables. Par exemple, lorsque l’IAF (les forces aériennes israéliennes) bombarde les positions du Hezbollah en Syrie, le système de défense aérienne russe n’est pas activé et les Russes ont clairement été prévenus. De même, la Russie partage parfois des renseignements avec Israël au sujet de l’Iran.

Quelle est l’importance des questions moyen-orientales dans la politique intérieure russe? Existe-t-il un lien entre la politique intérieure russe et les relations du président Poutine avec Israël?

Honnêtement, ce n’est pas vraiment un facteur – ce n’est ni un avantage, ni un inconvénient.

Certains observateurs estiment qu’Israël n’est qu’un pion sur l’échiquier russe. La Russie pourrait-elle devenir un allié stratégique clé d’Israël dans un avenir prochain?

Ce serait accorder trop peu de crédit à Israël. Oui, ce pays entretient de bonnes relations avec la Russie (les premiers drones russes qui sont entrés en fonction avaient été achetés en Israël, par exemple), mais Jérusalem ne deviendra le pion de personne.

Vous mentionnez brièvement, à la page 75 de votre livre, que le président Poutine ne manifeste « […] pas une once d’antisémitisme », mais pourriez-vous nous en dire davantage à propos de sa position sur le sujet et ce qu’il fait pour lutter contre ce fléau?

Poutine envoie le message que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

On ne peut pas dire qu’il l’a particulièrement activement combattu, mais ses relations manifestement bonnes avec Israël et avec le grand rabbin de Moscou sont certainement des symboles puissants pour les Russes influents et ambitieux à l’effet que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

Par rapport à la tendance observable dans d’autres pays d’Europe de l’Est (comme la Pologne par exemple), quel est l’état actuel de l’antisémitisme en Russie?

Le phénomène est présent, bien sûr, mais subjectivement, il semble en déclin – dans les années 1990, on pouvait souvent voir des graffitis antisémites sur les murs ou des insultes proférées dans les médias, mais les deux manifestations sont beaucoup moins évidentes aujourd’hui. À certains égards, une évolution intéressante est observable à l’effet que les nationalistes extrémistes, de qui on peut s’attendre à des préjugés, expriment en fait leur respect pour Israël, au niveau de sa volonté de défendre ses propres intérêts, avec force si nécessaire.

À part le président et le premier ministre, qui sont les architectes des relations entre les deux pays? À votre avis, y a-t-il une diplomatie parallèle à l’œuvre?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, le grand rabbin de Moscou, a été un acteur très important à cet égard – et, bien sûr, il existe de nombreux oligarques et minigarques d’origine juive et souvent détenteurs de la double nationalité russo-israélienne qui agissent comme entremetteurs.