Tuesday 28 June 2011

"Heaven help us if there is a war!"

The British Armed Forces in 1979 were the product of the cumulated effect of two major post colonial defence reviews.

The Healy Reviews of 1965 and 67-68 under the Labour Government reflected the financial crisis of the time which included a major devaluation in Sterling. Consequently the government looked to reduce defence spending which was running at 7% GNP.

Decisions were taken to reduce the UK’s global footprint and concentrate the deployment of military forces within Europe, with a commitment  “not undertake major operations of war except in co-operation with allies”. This led to the withdrawal from Aden and accelerated withdrawal from Singapore, Malaysia and the Persian Gulf. There were reductions in British presence in Cyprus and Malta, but there would also be reductions in BAOR, whilst the Territorial Army was due to be cut by half.

Under the Conservative government of 1970-74, little changed except a reversal in the decision to reduce the Territorial Army. Labour returned to power in 1974 and immediately instigated a further review of Britain's defence expenditure, then running at 5% GNP. The resulting Mason Review saw a virtual elimination of Britain’s military capability outwith home waters.
“a new balance between commitments and capabilities and between manpower and equipment expenditure will be achieved to meet the Government’s strategic priorities”.
We've heard that before and quite recently too. Four major commitments were identified. These were Britain's contribution to NATO front-line forces in Germany, anti-submarine forces in the eastern Atlantic, home defence and the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The review committed to withdrawing all British forces in the Mediterranean region, with the exception of Cyprus, including all maritime forces assigned to NATO in the Med and from a number of remaining theatres in the far east and West Indies.

With the tag line of "cutting the tail without cutting the teeth" the army's structure was changed to the Field Force and Battle group concept whihc saw it's first major test during exercises of 1976. Independent pundits saw it as the government trying to break down the regimental system - making future cuts less emotionally charged.

 The RAF’s transport fleet was cut by half and amphibious capability reduced. Airborne assault capability was largely removed also significantly reduced.Training budgets were slashed, weapons and rearmament programs cancelled or reduced in scale.

In 1977 the Joint Intelligence Committee presented Prime Minister Jim Callagham with a damning report about Britain's capability to defend itself against a conventional Soviet strike. Callaghan, often slated as a Soviet mole, showed his true metal and ordered an urgent review of Britain's defences. He was so shocked by the findings that he wrote on the document "Heaven help us if there is a war!".

The findings of the review demonstrated that Britain only had the capacity to put up a token defence and would in all probability be knocked out of a European war by a Soviet airborne strike as a prelude to the Warsaw Pact forces crossing the Inner German Border. Rather than an 'unsinkable aircraft carrier', the United kingdom was at that point was more akin to the Atlantic Conveyor.

As a result, in 1978 there was a turn around on defence spending with the sustainability fo Britain's home defence at the centre of the agenda. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 ensured that defence spending needed to be reassessed and this led to the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher ratifying Labour's NATO-centric focus with conventional forces acting as part of the NATO alliance in Europe backed by Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

Consequently, with Polaris to fund, the Nott Review of 1981, "The Way Forward", proposed that 57% of the defence cuts should fall on the Navy, stripping it's out of theatre capability including the scrapping of naval airpower and the Antarctic patrol vessel Endurance. Nott only just stopped short of disbanding the Royal Marines.

The Falklands War in 1982 demonstrated the fallacious nature of the UK's defence and foreign policy and that the defence budget was simply not aligned to meet it. If we can leave the victory aside, the conflict demonstrated the shortfalls in the armed forces capability at that time to actually wage war, especially outwith the BAOR battlefield.

In our Winter of '79 scenario we have an armed forces, that is (contentiously), a paper tiger. The most recent rounds of defence cuts under Labour have left an army in transition, with reduced logistical and support formations, limited realistic training and only a few days of ammunition stocks. Whilst a reorganisation of home defence is underway, how much of it has been undertaken? What can be relied upon in a civil emergency? Sort of levels the playing field and makes everything up for grabs.



  1. Remember it well. I recall all our 7.62 and 9mm ammo being taken away as there was a distinct shortage due to the falklands conflict..only a few of us (company sharpshooters) actually got to do any live firing for a few months!!!

  2. In 1980 I was still at school but had just been accepted to join RM's. I remember the shock of hearing on the news (and being teased by my mates) that they were scrapping the marines. Even though they pulled back when I did join the following year there was much resentment in the Corps against the Tory's. Going through those years as a lad from a working class background my resentment of all things Tory remains! I reckon in your scenario of Winter '79 the bootnecks could well end up in the anti government camp.

  3. I can remember when us Kiwis were shoved out of ANZUS in the mid 80's, not a nice time to be in the forces...No ammo, oh just yell bullets bullets!

    Good times, for the labour party at least.

  4. Wow, I knew some things were bad in the '70's for the armed forces, but I didn't realized that it was that bad for them.