It has greatly saddened me in recent weeks to read that yet another famous regiment or unit is under threat as a result of cutbacks by the Ministry of Defence.
The latest speculation concerns the future of the Parachute Regiment, which was formed during the Second World War and which has since seen action on D-Day and during the Falklands War as well as, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The British Army is perhaps the country’s strongest “brand”. Some years ago I commissioned a survey asking how positively or negatively people felt about various organisations, including some of Britain’s most popular companies. The Army came out streets ahead of them all. We should not underestimate the value of that kind of reputation.
A glance at the home page of the British Army website is enough to fill any patriotic-minded citizen with pride. “The British Army, committed to success,” reads the slogan.
Yet the British Army has, over three centuries, become associated with much more than just success. It is synonymous with honour, tradition, bravery, fair play and a host of other qualities.
I am perfectly aware that we live in difficult economic times and that the Ministry of Defence, as with all Government departments, has to make substantial savings. Indeed, the most recent of these defence cut-backs was announced as recently as Tuesday. As part of Tranche 2 of the Armed Forces Redundancy Programme, it was revealed that in the near future up to 2,900 members of the Army, up to 1,000 members of the Royal Air Force and up to 400 members of the Royal Navy will lose their jobs.
In the Strategic Defence and Security Review announced in October 2010, plans were unveiled to reduce the size of the Army by 7,000 personnel and both the Navy and RAF by 5,000 personnel by 2015. Further reductions were identified in July 2011 for the Regular Army, cutting the fighting force to about 82,000 by 2020.
With savings of this size, it is inevitable that some units will be lost but the delicate task facing defence chiefs is to make the cuts without damaging a “brand” that has been built-up and nurtured during war-time and peace-time alike.
According to a newspaper report last weekend, the Parachute Regiment, which comprises three regular battalions and a territorial unit, is “vulnerable” because it has not parachuted on operations since the Suez Crisis of 1956. Yet to imply the Parachute Regiment is in any way outdated is to do a great disservice to a group of men who have worn their “red berets” (they are in fact maroon) with pride for the past 71 years.
Perhaps I am biased because members of the Parachute Regiment fought alongside my late father, Eric Ashcroft when, as a young officer serving with the South Lancashire Regiment, he took part in the D-Day landings. My father, though wounded by shrapnel, helped to take Sword Beach.
But was the Parachute Regiment in any way outdated when its members braved the harshest of conditions and an entrenched army of invaders to help us win back the Falklands from Argentina in 1982? Were two of its members, Lieutenant-Colonel “H” Jones and Sergeant Ian McKay, in any way out of touch when they laid down their lives for Queen and country during that war, showing such incredible courage that both were awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously?
Was the Parachute Regiment in any way outdated when in war-torn Sierra Leone in 2000 it took part in a classic Special Forces operation to free a kidnapped British Army patrol from a notorious criminal militia?
I rest my case. Their motto is Utrinque Paratus – Ready For Anything – and throughout its history, the Paras have always lived and, if necessary, died for their motto. Quite apart from anything else, none of us knows what lies ahead. I have always been a great supporter of our Special Forces but if we had disbanded the SAS in the Seventies, the regiment would not have been in existence in its hour of being needed: the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980 when, in 17 action-packed minutes in London, the SAS publicly established itself as one of the world’s most elite fighting forces.
How do we know that there is not a major terrorist incident or a new global conflict just around the corner that would require a specialist parachute force to deal with the crisis?
In the meantime, the Parachute Regiment has repeatedly proved effective and adaptable in countless trouble spots around the world, including Cyprus, Borneo, Aden, Northern Ireland and the Balkans. Its members have hardly been wrapped in cotton-wool while waiting for an entirely “suitable” challenge for their skills.
I would argue that to disband the Parachute Regiment and other crucial units would do irreparable damage not just to the reputation of the British Army but, more importantly, to its fighting capability.
So, when the inevitable defence cutbacks are executed over the coming years, I hope those making the decisions will show sensitivity and common sense. If they do so, the good name of the British Army, arguably our premier “brand”, will be cherished for many years to come.