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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

When The SAS Stormed An Embassy

The SAS operation "Nimrod" took place here in 1980. My photo from 2019.

30 April 2020 it is 40 years since the start of one of the most famous anti-terrorist operations ever. In the end, Special Air Service (SAS) operators saved all but one of the remaining hostages. Do watch the movie about the event, but bear in mind that it says very little about one lesson from the event - a lesson that we ought to be more aware of.

As a kid in the early 1980s I was favourably impressed by the abseiling SAS soldiers that hit the global news. But their appearance at the Iranian embassy in London was also a bit terrifying. Dressed largely in black, with their faces inside black respirators and wielding black submachine guns (Heckler & Koch MP5s), they looked rather sinister (Darth Vader-ish). Naturally, as soon as "6 Days" was released I was keen to see how a detailed reenactment of the event would look like. Well, it is not just about the 17 minute SAS assault, but about the whole Iranian embassy siege of 30 April to 5 May 1980. The siege situation is presented from three perspectives and it is quite moving to follow the negotiator Max Vernon (Mark Strong). But, being fond of books about the SAS, I was more interested in the SAS perspective, i.e. Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell). "6 Days" made me wonder about some of his decisions and therefore I wanted to know more from the actual Rusty Firmin. Here is the book by him that I then got:

The book Rusty Firmin wrote about his career in the SAS. Some surprising insights.

Rusty Firmin´s The Regiment (2015) explains a key moment in the embassy that the movie "6 Days" portrays rather poorly, it seems to me. There is also the book focusing on the siege that Firmin wrote together with Will Pearson, entitled Go! Go! Go! (2011), and then there is e.g. Who Dares Wins (2009) by Gregory Fremont-Barnes. But hey, no book will probably affect the general public´s knowledge about the event as much as the movie "6 Days", which is why I decided to write this blog post. In spite of everything that I appreciate in "6 Days", there is one big thing the film makers could have done better. Who was behind the whole thing? Of course, the movie informs a bit about the terrorist group that took over the embassy, the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan. However, there was a state behind the group: Iraq. The Iraqi state under Saddam Hussein not only prepared, financed and supplied the terrorists (e.g. with Soviet RGD-5 hand grenades and Czechoslovak Skorpions). One of their Iraqi intelligence handlers had even taken them to London. In "6 Days" this is summarized too much, the relevant scene is so short that some may miss it.

So, what on the surface looked like the act of a terrorist group of Arabian separatists from Iran was more like an Iraqi strike against Iran. Byt why is this small proxy war in London forty years ago relevant for us in 2020? Well, there were several terrorist actions during the 1980s, in different countries, that still today are sometimes not portrayed as what they mostly were, war by proxy. That is a form of warfare that has made a comeback in recent years, and therefore we need to be able to identify and understand it. Iraq under Saddam was not the main culprit, usually it was one or more security/intelligence agencies from the Soviet bloc. But these quite often used terrorists, not least Arab terrorists. This modus operandi even affected my native Sweden, and it took many years for Swedes to start realizing this.

Seeing the Iranian embassy in London today is just like seeing it on 30 April 1980. It was seriously damaged at the end of the siege but has been nicely restored. It is easy to see the embassy yourself as it is in the heart of London. There are some other places connected to SAS history not far from the embassy and I will be writing about these in a London guide that I intend to release here in a month or so.

Monday, April 27, 2020

T-14 Armata MBT

The first book to focus on the most radical new MBT since the Swedish S-tank.

The Russian T-14 Armata tank differs so much from previous main battle tanks that one could say it is the most radical "production" tank since the turretless Swedish "S-tank" (strv 103). The first book in English about this vehicle, written by James Kinnear, is more interesting than the parade photo on the cover indicates.

Of course, some who read this blog post will not consider the S-tank to have been a tank. Some will say it was actually a tank destroyer or an assault gun. Well, let us not here argue about that vehicle´s capabilities. I could argue quite a lot, because I was trained to use it during 15 months. But whatever your opinion is, it is a fact that in the Swedish Army the strv 103 was officially classified as a tank. "Strv" is short for stridsvagn which is Swedish for a tank (MBT). Let us move on to what is new. Well, at least fairly new. This May 9 it will be exactly 5 years since the T-14 was officially presented during the Victory Day parade in Moscow. But the T-14 still can be considered "the new kid on the block" and there still are good reasons to read the first book in English to focus on the T-14, written by the armour expert James Kinnear and first published in 2018.

At first glance the T-14 might not look so revolutionary. But first of all its resemblance to previous Russian and Soviet tanks is almost zero. It thus constitutes a break with tradition. Then, inside, there is a huge difference. The tank turret has no tankers, it is remotely controlled by the three-man crew, located safely within the hull. The latter two features were two of the main features of the S-tank.

Looking closer at the exterior lots of interesting features become clear. And this book will certainly delight both tankers and scale modellers because it has many really nice photos of the exterior. But, to me, the real gem is the surprisingly detailed chapter about the development of the vehicle. However, before I describe it I must say something about the current status of the T-14. There are huge doubts about the T-14, mainly if it will become a mass produced tank. Media sources have gone from stating that there would be over two thousand T-14s by now (are there more than twenty now?), to playing down the need for the T-14. There seem to be endless amounts of Soviet tanks that can be modernized to a remarkable degree.

So, there is much that is unclear about the future of the T-14, something which was evident already when James Kinnear wrote his book. Kinnear also made the question marks clear already on the rear cover.

Well, no matter what the future holds, the history of the T-14 is amazing and not something you will find on Wikipedia. Kinnear´s book describes several design bureau projects with details and some photos that I have never come across before. Scale modellers into making "what if" tanks ought to get some inspiration from this chapter.

T-14 Armata by James Kinnear has no doubt expanded my understanding of the T-14s history, but at the same time it has made me wonder if not the Soviet tank design bureaus in Kharkov (Kharkiv) and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) had been studying developments in Sweden during the 1980s quite a lot. I am thinking of the various Swedish UDES vehicles, especially the UDES 19 and UDES XX20. While I did not have the privilege of seeing a UDES 19 IRL (check it out via the link to the UDES page I just provided) I did get to see the UDES XX20. Below is a photo from my one and only encounter with it.

Seeing an UDES XX20 up close. Not sure about the year but I reckon 1985/86.

Finally, I must say I am very impressed with the quality of all Canfora books, T-14 Armata is just one of several terrific books from Swedish Canfora. Do visit the Canfora website and look around.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Churchill: A Graphic Biography

Yes, I am reviewing a comic book now! But, trust me - it is seriously good.

Now, Churchill is one fellow that is very hard to summarize. With such a rich and long life in various positions, almost an impossible task. But I´d say that Vincent Delmas has succeeded, both because of the comics and the superb introduction, which is more like an illustrated article.

Of course, lots of important stuff is not part of Churchill: A Graphic Biography, and as a Nordic reader I wanted more about Norway 1940. Still, most of the key moments in his life are here. Speaking about Norway - the heavy water sabotage operation is in the book.

My one real criticism is that the military hardware shown could have been more correct and detailed. But, generally speaking, this is one of the best, if not the best, fact-based comic books that I have read.

One subject that takes up a fairly large part in the final pages of the book is the failure to secure Poland´s independence. Rightly so!

Being a history nerd you have either seen or will probably see the brilliant historical drama web television series "The Crown" created and principally written by Peter Morgan for Netflix. Well, here comes a suggestion for you TV people out there. Check out Churchill: A Graphic Biography by Vincent Delmas etc. Because it is both brilliant and credible. I suspect that this has a lot to do with Francois Kersaudy, the project´s historical consultant. It should be possible to use Churchill: A Graphic Biography as the basis for a Netflix movie, or even a TV series.