Top Gun Top Cover
“Top cover” is arguably one of the most important jobs for an infantry soldier in a British Army snatch vehicle. As the name implies he (or she) is perched on top of the vehicle at its highest point gaining the best possible view to scope everything that is going on when on patrol. The vehicle does not carry armaments. Top cover will only carry their own personal infantry weapon.
The snatch vehicle is based on a Land Rover and offers minimal protection to the occupants particularly from roadside bombs (IEDs). Its origins are to be found in the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland when it was used to drive into the rioting mob to assist the “snatch squads” to arrest suspected ringleaders.
Sure, it was upgraded in terms of protection during its later use in Iraq but the overall lack of protection from IEDs led to a number of fatalities in both Iraq and Afghanistan and much controversy. There are so many instances of the Americans and British fighting in the same conflicts and standing side by side. There are also so many instances of British equipment, or kit, falling way below the standards of its American counterpart.
British Army Courts-Martial in Germany
You may be forgiven for observing that this is not the usual stuff to be found on my blog. You are right in a way, but the link to my past is about to be revealed. For 14 years I was a barrister (trial attorney) in the UK. As defence counsel, I specialized mainly in criminal law. That specialty led me to flying out to Germany from Heathrow on many occasions to defend members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces accused of a variety of criminal charges. The British Army has a court-martial system and a number of military courts-martial centers dotted about Germany. My ventures into Germany were interesting and mostly enjoyable. I also learned a lot.
The British Army has a discipline code, as can be expected. If there is a specific criminal offence in civilian law in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal jurisdictions), then you will find the equivalent charge in the Army code of discipline. In addition, there are many other offences that can be committed by a serving member of HM Armed Forces that are peculiar to the military. Many of those fall under the heading of internal discipline such as insubordination.
On one of my trips I was tasked with defending an infantryman charged with a disciplinary type offence. It would often have been dealt with internally by his CO but, as was his right, he chose to have the matter determined at a District Court Martial.
The essence of the complaint against him, let me call him H, was that he had been tasked with the top cover role in a Land Rover snatch vehicle as part of a patrol in Iraq. It was alleged that he took with him a personal music player. This was against all the rules for obvious reasons.
There were two snatch vehicles in this patrol. One containing H and a full complement including a Lance-Corporal, who was nominally in charge of that vehicle and crew. The second was also fully crewed up with a Corporal in charge of both sets of crew. Both crews were carrying all standard issue infantry kit including PRRs (Personal Role Radios). This is a small hand held radio to facilitate comms between the two vehicles, and between each soldier, It has a range of about 500 meters.
My instructions from H were that he did have the music player with him, but that he had never used it whatsoever. He had inadvertently left it in his combat trousers pocket when leaving the base to go out on patrol. The essence of the charge against him was that he was guilty of dereliction of his duty in that the use of the player impaired his performance as a soldier.
It was a short hearing in front of the Judge-Advocate at the Military Court Center (MCC), as not many witnesses were called to give evidence. One witness who did give evidence was the Corporal from the second snatch vehicle.
I found it strange that the Corporal had not admonished H using his PRR. H was in the key role of top cover, and I believed that the Corporal would have given H a “right royal blast” in those circumstances.
I cross examined the Corporal and he agreed that he had known of the issue of H and the music player whilst they were out on patrol. He further agreed with me that he did not use the PRR to admonish H and restore best soldierly practice. My training told me the right time to comment on that was during my closing speech to the Judge-Advocate and the Panel.
That’s exactly what I did, and forcibly made the point that if there had been a dereliction of duty as alleged then surely the Corporal would have administered a suitable admonishment using the PRR system.
The Panel must have seen the force of my argument, as after they had retired to deliberate on guilt or otherwise, they returned to deliver a “Not Guilty” verdict. H was a happy man.
One of the features of this work was the generally far friendlier and less confrontational atmosphere that permeated the military courts-martial regime. This was exemplified when the Corporal spoke to me in the immediate aftermath of the verdict.
He said, “Well done sir” adding, “there is a question you didn’t ask me”, while wearing a cheeky grin.
I said, “What was that then?”
“You didn’t ask me if my PRR was working. If you had asked me I would have said it wasn’t as it was defective!”
I immediately saw the humor in that exchange and it also typifies something else I learned about the British Army. If you are not asked – then don’t volunteer!
It demonstrates a discipline far ingrained into an experienced soldier’s psyche. He was asked a question by a figure of authority – me, in this case. He answered it without qualification or embellishment. A civilian witness in similar circumstances would have rushed to add the “if’s” and but’s” and every little proviso!
Germany and Britain
I enjoyed those trips to Germany very much. It wasn’t just the military aspects that I enjoyed as I also welcomed a chance to see a little of Germany and talk to a few locals. It’s a source of constant amazement to me that such a civilized and polite people were our enemies throughout two World Wars. One of the constant reminders of our shared history is to be found next to the British military base at Celle in the form of the former Belsen concentration camp.
One of my flights to Hanover, Germany saw me seated next to a gentleman of about 80 to 85 years of age. I noticed the tell tale tattoo on his arm, but I had only seen them in the movies or TV documentaries.
He spoke perfect English with an American accent. His story was that he had been a survivor of a concentration camp but the rest of his family had perished in the gas chambers. He was on an annual visit to Germany at the invitation of a German based foundation. Every year he talks to 12- 15 year old German children about his experiences in the concentration camp. I was moved by his story.
I learned other things too from my courts-martial days. I alluded to the less confrontational atmosphere of the regime compared to the cut and thrust of the standard English criminal trial. That extended to seeking practical solutions at times with advantages to all parties involved. One such case was when I was defending a senior NCO , a seasoned veteran of a Sergeant-Major. These guys are the backbone of the British Army. The officer class could not function properly without them and the men would be rudderless. My Sergeant-Major client was charged with a serious assault on his wife.
They both had a drink problem and the assault had taken place following a heavy drinking session when both of them had more than “one over the eight.” All parties had convened at the MCC when the Judge-Advocate asked to privately see both me and the prosecuting Army officer, an officer with legal qualifications. He simply pointed out to both of us that the wife stood to lose all her pension rights if my client was to be convicted, as he would be dishonorably discharged from the Army.
The prosecuting officer took it upon himself to inform the wife of this, as the issue of pension loss had not occurred to him. The wife was a pragmatic soul and wished to drop all charges forthwith! The last I heard was that they were still happily married and both of them were seeking help with their alcohol addiction problem.
Pride in the Desert Rats
The pride of the typical soldier often shows through. One of my clients was an engaging young man from my neck of the woods, Lancashire, serving with the Desert Rats (7th Armoured Brigade) based at that time in Hohne, Germany. He gave me a personal guided tour of the barracks and even introduced me to his CO, a friendly, down to earth, red haired Major. His guided tour was completed by proudly showing me his “Tonka Toy”! A massive AS-90 155 mm self-propelled howitzer. What a bloody big gun! I asked him how far it would fire, and knowing I was from Lancashire, he said, “Let me put it this way. If I was on Southport Beach, then I could knock out Blackpool Tower!” (about 20 miles!)
Don’t Stay on Base
I soon learned on these trips never to stay on base. My first trip saw me do just that as I didn’t know any better! It was a hell hole of a room. Filthy beyond description, save to say that there were even dirty old Band Aids in the trash bin in the room! After that I always booked my own accommodation in a hotel somewhere reasonably close to the military court center.
There were several benefits to doing that. First off, I could always rely on a military driver to collect me from the hotel and return me that evening. Second, the food in the hotel was superb. I loved it at certain times of the year when the local asparagus was in season. Germans blanch it and smother it in butter accompanied by yet more butter smothering, but this time on local potatoes. This together with local, thick-sliced Westphalian ham is wunderbar! And all washed down with strong smooth tasty German beer. Heaven!
The third benefit was that I often had the company of an an attractive, intelligent young lady for dinner at my hotel. By the time she arrived for dinner she had changed out of her Second Lieutenant’s uniform and donned some casual top and jeans, or maybe a short skirt! Heaven plus!
A good meal, good beer, good company and an attractive female to gaze upon!
I regret nothing in life, but that does not mean I don’t miss certain things.
By way of explanation defending counsel in a military court-martial is assisted by a Unit Defending Officer (UDO). That officer is usually the lowest ranking, most junior officer in the unit, as it’s a bit of a “dogsbody” of a job! The second lieutenants I refer to were occasionally very attractive female officers.
Post Script – after writing this article I decided to add this dedication. This piece is written in a sense of tremendous admiration for all the members of HM Armed Forces who perform a dangerous job in order to protect our freedom. In particular, may I express my personal pride and admiration for Tim’s son, Rory of the Parachute Regiment and another good friend Ricky’s son Joe, serving in the Royal Marines. God Bless each and every one of you.
Featured Image photo credit: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/british-army-1st-battallion-kings-regiment-corporal-paul-news-photo/2464746
Celle Barracks Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Reserveheld