BY ALY RENWICK
“I wanted to do my bit for my country but now I feel let down: There needs to be a system of taking care of racism – teaching people the do’s and don’ts – but that is the last thing the Army worries about.”
Winston Clay, a black Scottish Royal Artillery soldier, who was called ‘Porridge Wog’ by his fellow soldiers.
Over 400 years ago, under the first Queen Elizabeth, the ‘troubles’ in Ireland seemed endemic. Anti-Irish propaganda was used to justify the ongoing conflict, with the Irish being described as ‘beasts, void of law and all good order’ and being ‘brutish in their customs’. Originally, the Anglo-Normans had justified their wars of conquest in Ireland by denigrating the native Irish and this was to continue over successive centuries:
“In 1483 a monk named Giraldus Cambrensis, a member of one of the main Norman families colonizing Ireland, wrote a book entitled The History and Topography of Ireland. It was a work of fiction designed to justify the Norman Conquest in Ireland. Accordingly, Cambrensis accused the Irish of various vices, including laziness, treachery, blasphemy, idolatry, ignorance of Christian beliefs, incest and cannibalism. Remarkably, this bizarre and fictional account was the mainstay of English views of Ireland for the next 500 years.”
[The New Internationalist, No. 255 / May 1994, in article, The Riotous and the Righteous, by Bill Rolston].
Brainwashed by this anti-Irish propaganda the soldiers hunted down any resistance to English rule. In 1594 a revolt occurred in Ulster in the north of Ireland and Sir Arthur Chichester sent this dispatch about his pursuit of Irish rebels at Lough Neagh:
“We have killed, burnt, and spoiled all along the Lough … in which journeys we have killed above 100 people of all sorts … We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it hath bred much terror in the people … The last service was upon Patrick O’Quin, whose house and town was burnt, wife, son, children and people slain …”
Ireland became a testing and training ground for the use of repressive colonial tactics and measures, which were then applied in other areas of the Empire. While the history of today’s British Army can be traced back to the Civil War in England and Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, its enduring character was forged, and the hierarchy strengthened, during the Victorian colonial wars to hold and extend the Empire. It was then that the British Army acquired its contemporary reputation among the armies of the major powers of the world as a ‘counter-insurgency’ force.
While the foot soldiers in the British Armed Forces came mainly from the poor and colonised, the officer corps – produced by the public-school system – ensured the perpetuation of the status quo. And throughout its history the usage of derogatory and racially offence terms persisted, mainly to demonise those people in the Empire that the Army, Navy and Airforce were used against.
So, defaming and stereotyping became one of the main tactic to make sure the troops would ‘do the business’ against the natives and racism became deeply rooted in Britain’s empire military. The history of 45 Commando Royal Marines, for instance, which was formed in 1943, stated that at the end of WW2 one of its ‘favourite marching songs’ was: ‘Sambo was a Lazy Coon’.
[FourFive – The Story of 45 Commando Royal Marines 1943-1971, by David Young, Leo Cooper Ltd 1972].
Post WW2, a number of racially derogatory terms were in common usage in Britain’s Armed Forces for any of the people in the British Empire who had a darker skin colour – and therefore thought to be of a lower-grade to the white rulers and their soldiers. Probably, the most common offensive term was ‘Wog’, which originated in the Victorian period among the British Raj troops serving in southeast Asia. This word is still in use among some civilians and serving personal in the Armed Forces.
Douglas Valder Duff, who served as a ‘Black and Tan’ in Ireland and later as a colonial-style policeman in Palestine, afterwards stated: “To us all non-Europeans were ‘wogs’, and Western non-Britons only slightly more worthy”. The great-and-the-good in Britain often kowtowed in the usage of this racial slur – and it was even used against other Europeans, who were thought to be inferior. In 1949, George Wigg, the Labour MP for Dudley, stated in Parliament that: “The right hon. Member for Woodford [Mr. Churchill] thinks that the ‘wogs’ start at Calais.”
In July 1958, the Prime Minster, Harold Macmillan, who had succeeded Sir Anthony Eden as the Tory leader after the Suez debacle, visited Cyprus during ‘The Emergency’. His trip included several meetings with the troops, who were tasked with putting down the rebellion:
“One of the Premier’s calls was to Lyssi village, which lay under a ten-day curfew, but he spoke to no one there except soldiers and police, departing with ten copies of ‘The Grenadier’, a Guards magazine for Guards. Breaking into verse at one point, the cyclostyled magazine declared:
Sergeant Clerk is the Acorn’s clerk
But is prone to get in rages.
If the Wogs give any trouble
He puts them into cages.
The cages were the barbed-wire pens where men waited their turn for questioning – another name for them was ‘play-pens’; the Wogs, of course, were the Cypriots. The visitor wrote across a souvenir copy: ‘With best wishes from an old Grenadier – Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister’.”
[Legacy of Strife – Cyprus from rebellion to civil war, by Charles Foley, A Penguin Special 1964].
Similar things occurred in places like Malaya, Aden and Kenya, but towards the end of the 1960s conflict was starting to breakout again in Ireland and General Sir Walter Walker, a former commander of NATO, who had fought against the native peoples in Malaya and Brunei, made a call: ‘To save Britain from the Communist Trojan Horse in our midst’. He then claimed that Harold Wilson, the Labour Party leader was a ‘proven communist’ – and about the north of Ireland Walker said:
“I have engaged in campaigns against blacks, yellows and slant eyes. Why should we have one rule for whites and one for coloureds? We have to decide if Northern Ireland is part of Britain or not – and if so, act accordingly.”
In early 1977 a serving, but anonymous, Welsh officer wrote about the past colonisation of Wales and contrasted it with his experiences during a tour-of-duty in the north of Ireland – for a series of articles that appeared in the Irish Press:
“As in years gone by, ‘Taffy was a Welshman … Taffy was a thief’ could have been a possible cri de coeur for the army of Edward I, so, today ‘Paddy or Mick or Bogwog’ has become synonymous with things which are loathsome, evil, stupid or more simply, ‘typical’. We have resurrected our oldest scapegoat and like some battered golliwog we have dragged him out of the cupboard, to vilify him all over again.
There is a cartoon strip entitled ‘Seamus’ in the Army magazine ‘Visor’ – a weekly publication for troops serving in the North. ‘Seamus’ is an IRA-man and, as you’d expect, a pretty stupid one at that. He is continually blowing himself up on his own bombs, or else being shot or arrested by soldiers. In many ways, he is an exact crib from the ‘Bill and Ben – the IRA men’ comic feature of a well-known UDA broadsheet. He’s a figure of fun. And yet, despite all his weekly disasters, he still reappears with monotonous insistence. Beneath the superficial humour lies the reality of our current situation …”
[Irish Press, 24th, 25th Jan. 1977, written by a British officer while serving in Northern Ireland].
Black Soldiers & Racism
In more recent times the ‘Micks’, ‘Paddies’ and ‘Bogwogs’ in Northern Ireland, had given way to the ‘Rag-heads’, ‘Jinglies’ and ‘Chogies’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. At present about ten-per-cent of those serving in the British armed forces are black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME). Many have experienced some sort of discrimination, or been subject to racist abuse.
Even after they left the army BAME soldiers recruited from the Commonwealth were discriminated against, especially if they wanted to stay in the UK – the country they fought for. Gracie-Ann Kelly’s Remembrance ‘Where Is the Love’ Message asked for a fair deal for Commonwealth veterans:
Due to the campaign around this issue the Government announced in February 2022 that: ‘Visa fees would be waived for overseas UK veterans who had served for a minimum of six years.’ But racial abuse and discrimination is still experienced by many BAME soldiers while serving. And this has been going on for far too long inside the UK Armed Forces.
Forty years ago, in 1981, the journalist Ian Jack visited the Green Jackets regiment while writing a series of articles on British youth: “The dozen boys I spoke to were all white, from working-class homes in London, the Midlands and the West Country. The Green Jackets, however, do recruit a fair number of black youths. Slowly the conversation drifted through patriotism (‘We’re English, aren’t we? I mean, we’re God’s gift’) and the riots of this summer (‘daft – just to get yourself noticed’) towards the thorny and ever-present subject of race. ‘Yeah we got coloured geezers, sambos and that,’ said one of the louder boys, ‘but we take the piss. I mean last month we pretended to be the Ku Klux Klan. We put pillow cases over our heads and went around the barracks at night moaning and wailing and telling them that Maggie Thatcher was going to kick ’em all out. But everybody gets the piss taken out of them, they know it’s only a joke like. There’s this Paki, we call him Abdul. We say, ‘Give us a fag, Abdul, you nig-nog’ and he says, ‘Aw piss off or I’ll get my tribe down to have a go at you’, ‘I mean it’s a joke for him as well. We all do it. The corporals take the piss just as bad’.
They do. The next day Donald McCullin was photographing a black recruit behind the parade ground. A corporal passed them. ‘Oi’, he shouted, ‘remember to show ’im your lips’. I asked a young officer if this kind of behaviour presented problems. He said: ‘Well occasionally we do get blacks ganging up together in a black power kind of thing – we call them coon clans – but fortunately we’ve got some excellent black NCOs and they sort things out pretty quickly’.
In fact the Green Jackets tend to be regarded as a sloppy, pinko outfit by other units in the British Army; by, for example, the Household Regiments who appear to such stunning effect in royal pageants. The Household Regiments do not accept black recruits. ‘It’s not official policy, you understand’, said a cavalry officer, ‘it’s just that we won’t have them’.”
[The Sunday Times Magazine, 1st Nov. 1981, report on British youth by Ian Jack].
The attitudes described in the Jack article should come as no surprise, when the dehumanising of whole races still plays a major part in ensuring that soldiers will use their force of arms against those denigrated. Many recruits will also have picked up racist, sexist and homophobic biases, which were current in society at the time they joined-up – and they will have found that those prejudices were often encouraged in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways, during their training and service.
Not all recruits take easily to this type of military life, however, and the first casualties of the military system often occur inside the training units themselves:
“A bullying corporal made life hell for army recruits, it was claimed yesterday … At barracks where three young soldiers have died in the last three months … The incidents are alleged to have taken place at Shorncliffe Barracks, Kent, last summer. At the barracks in December, 17-year-old soldier Nicholas Burnup apparently shot dead a corporal and turned the gun on himself. A month later another 17-year-old, Jeffrey Singh, was found hanging dead.”
[Daily Record, 5th March 1987].
Many recruits, of any skin colour, often find that Basic Training has a competitive edge that can see the process getting more and more fanatical. In extreme cases, as with Shorncliffe Barracks in the 1980s, or Deepcut in the 1990s, it can get out of control. And this has reoccurred from time to time at other training locations, especially if the supervision is lax and the excesses covered-up – rather than being sorted out.
Anyone considered an outsider, however, can experience hostility in the Regimental System, which glorifies past colonial battles and is steeped in the traditions of Britain’s imperial legacy. And all military units still stereotype and encourage denigrating nicknames for opponents in overseas conflicts. Therefore, racist feelings towards foreigners, or anyone considered inferior, can also breakout inside military units to target recruits of a different skin colour, or other differences, who sometimes have their lives destroyed because of it.
In the past, this has come to light, when, in times of recruitment difficulties, the military has targeted the UK’s ethnic minorities, or the Commonwealth, to fulfil enlistment quotas. And this did lead to some of those BAME recruited soldiers being subjected to harassment and attacks. The inquest into the death of private Jeffrey Singh at Shorncliffe Barracks, for instance, heard allegations of racist bullying and that he had been called a ‘black bastard’.
[Independent, 12th Oct. 1987].
Towards the end of the last century, in the media there appeared many stories of BAME soldiers in the British Army being subjected to racist maltreatment, like Stephen Anderson, who was subjected to abuse and discrimination while serving with the Devon and Dorset Regiment in Berlin and Wiltshire. He was beaten up for refusing to go drinking with white soldiers, and his life was threatened:
“He had to lock himself in a bathroom to sleep at night, and was called ‘nigger’ or ‘coon’ by NCOs. He is serving 112 days at the Army’s correction centre in Colchester after being court martialled in December for absence without leave. His mother, Mrs. Joyce Anderson, said yesterday that ‘he had absconded because officers had refused to listen to his complaints’.”
[Guardian, 5th Feb. 1988].
After his discharge, Anderson fought for justice with the help of the Commission for Racial Equality. After a four year battle he was awarded just £500 compensation and the black paper, ‘The Voice’, reported his ordeal:
“Stephen Anderson phoned a local radio station while he was wandering about Birmingham city centre last week in a distressed state. Thousands of listeners to BBC Radio WM heard him say: ‘I can’t cope, I’ve had enough’. He told of the injustices he suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers in the Devon and Dorset Regiment. Anderson had just been awarded £500 by the Army for the verbal and physical abuse he suffered while serving in Germany. He had been called a ‘black bastard’, ‘nigger’, ‘coon’, and ‘Rastus’ by some of his colleagues, a corporal and a sergeant. He also claimed the corporal held a knife at his throat.
By September 1987 Anderson had brought 13 complaints of serious racial abuse to the notice of his commanding officer, but in 1989 a military hearing dismissed his claims. In November 1990 a High Court judicial hearing, held in response to pressure from the Commission for Racial Equality, quashed the Army’s decision. Five of the complaints were proved, but only one of the incidents took place while Anderson was on duty.”
[The Voice, 22nd Oct. 1991].
Just after that incident, Winston Clay, who served in the Royal Artillery, was also subjected to ongoing racial abuse:
“A black soldier who went AWOL after racist bullying said yesterday: ‘Being in jail was better than my regiment’. Scot Winston Clay put up with the abuse for several years – but eventually he couldn’t take any more. He went on the run for six months before being captured … And the 23-year-old squaddie was banged up in the glasshouse for 56 days.
He said: ‘It was better in prison because people knew they couldn’t get away with racism’. … Winston, whose dad comes from Sierra Leone, joined the regular Army in 1992 after a spell as a boy soldier. But racist bully-boys made his life hell and picked on him because he was black – and Scottish. He was told he couldn’t march because of the colour of his skin and fellow soldiers’ sick taunts included the name ‘Porridge Wog’. He said: ‘I wanted to do my bit for my country but now I feel let down: There needs to be a system of taking care of racism – teaching people the do’s and don’ts – but that is the last thing the Army worries about’.”
[Daily Record, 13th Jan. 1997].
In 1989 it was reported that a secret report into ‘why black and coloured people shun the Armed Forces’ was ‘sending shock waves through the Ministry of Defence’:
“It is said to contain ‘unpalatable facts’ about racial discrimination in all three branches of the Services. Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton admitted last night that a massive marketing campaign was needed in ethnic communities to counter the ‘alienation’ felt by black and Asian groups.”
[Daily Mail, 12th June 1989, full-page report by Paul Maurice].
A week after the secret report was presented, journalist Kate Muir visited the Guards as they rehearsed for Trooping the Colour. A guardsman was telling her about a recent posting:
“He is interrupted by another soldier who has clearly not been invited to speak by the press officer. ‘We didn’t really like Belize ’cos of all the coloured people’. The others laugh. ‘Notice that I say coloured, not Pakis and wogs. That’s because the army isn’t racist any more’.”
[Independent, 19th June 1989].
While the Armed Forces still stereotype and denigrate enemies that are often people of colour, it should come as no surprise that some soldiers will attempt to apply the same treatment to others within their own ranks whom they considered to be different and/or inferior. For a recent view on the issue of racist abuse in the British Army, BBC three Reporter Callum Tulley speaks to former soldier David, who feels that speaking out about racism made his life in the army worse and drove him to leave the Armed Forces:
Homophobia in Macho Land
In America in 1979 representatives of a popular music band asked the US Navy if they could provide the use of a frigate and a few sailors to form the background of the video for a new song. On hearing that the song would be about the navy the Admirals agreed, but insisted that an agreement was made giving the US Navy the right to use the footage for recruitment and publicity purposes. It might have proved interesting to have been the proverbial fly on the wall as a pack of the crusty navy top-brass eagerly viewed the finished product – the Village People performing ‘In The Navy’:
The video was made aboard the frigate ‘USS Reasoner’ at the San Diego Naval Base and the song later reached number 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts. The US Navy declined to use the video, because at that time the US armed forces barred gay men, bisexuals and lesbians from service.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the US Congress passed a law commonly referred to as: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ (DADT), which allowed gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve as long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation. Those openly gay were still banned till DADT was suspended in 2010 and the restrictions on service by gays, lesbians and bisexuals was ended in 2011.
In England, during the time of King Henry VIII, sodomy was criminalised in 1533 and could be punished by a death sentence. This was changed to life imprisonment in 1861, but 24 years later many other homosexual acts also became open to prosecution and punishment. Under this legislation the Irish writer Oscar Wilde served 2 years hard labour from 1895.
Later, after WW2, Alan Turing, who had played a leading part in cracking the Nazi Enigma code at Bletchley Park, was hounded to his death by police and the authorities. Gay sex acts were partly decriminalised in 1967, but in the decades that followed many other facets of anti-gay laws were still in force and were applied forcefully by the state. Over this period there were struggles in many areas of society to remove discrimination and bring equality.
The reforms in 1967 had excluded the Armed Forces, where sex between males continued to be a criminal offence. So, the outright ban on gays in the services carried on. Inside the army, male squaddies who were deemed to be effeminate were often subjected to abuse and ill-treatment by their fellow soldiers.
In September 1990, Guardsman Alex Ireland was on a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. A bit of a loner, he had difficulty fitting in with the enclosed, macho-land of a professional army regiment. Admitting to being a virgin, he was teased unmercifully by his fellow soldiers, who regaled him with graphic details of their own sexual exploits. Even on patrol in the Tyrone countryside, Alex was the victim of abuse.
His NCOs were the worst, he was ‘useless’, said his sergeant. ‘He’s not cut out for the Guards’ and ‘He walks like a fruit’. After a ten-hour patrol, through which Alex was incessantly goaded, the soldiers were flown back to barracks by helicopter and settled down to sleep. The next morning the riot gun, which Alex had been responsible for, could not be found.
He knew he had brought the gun back and thought someone had hidden it as a prank. But he was summoned before some of his NCOs and told he would be sent to the military prison at Colchester if he did not find it. This was the last straw, because shortly afterwards Alex went to his room and shot himself below the heart with his SA 80 rifle.
Alex Ireland had found the combination of constant abuse from fellow soldiers and a tour-of-duty in the north of Ireland too much to bear. He left a note, with a special message for his mother:
“Tell mother I love her, tell mother I need her, tell mother not to cry, my love for her will never die. I could not hack it any longer. Your loving son, Alex.”
[Mail on Sunday, 14th July 1991].
At that time any soldier discovered to be gay would experience an even harder time. Homosexuality was – and sometimes still is – thought by many hard-line militarists to be incompatible with the macho ideology that they think any armed forces should be instilled with. Subsequent anti-gay prejudice often resulted in savage persecution and even suicides:
“A gay private in the Drum Corps, James Darkin, was driven to take his own life in 1980 after months of bullying which the coroner at the inquest into his death described as a ‘living hell’. The inquest heard how Darkin had been thrown into a duck pond, kicked, forcibly bathed, urinated over, and scrubbed down with scouring powder. Despite repeated complaints to senior officers, they took no action and told him he should ‘stand up and be like a man’.”
[Tribune, 17th July 1987, by Peter Tatchell].
Until 2000, soldiers who had been convicted for being gay were often sentenced to periods in army prisons. They were then dismissed from the service:
“A 21-year-old private in the King’s Regiment was convicted and jailed for life after strangling a friend who had threatened to tell the Army about their homosexual affair. Sentences of nine months’ imprisonment for having a homosexual affair are not unknown. Such conduct would not be punishable under the general law.”
Sometimes, attacks were launched on gay civilians by serving and ex-soldiers. In 1977, serving soldiers Dale Martin and Anthony Bottril were jailed for killing two homosexual men:
“Two Coldstream Guardsmen who allowed themselves to be ‘picked up’ in a pub frequented by homosexuals intending to rob their victim finished up with a blood bath in which two men were stabbed to death, an Old Bailey jury was told yesterday. One of the slaughtered men was the Lord Mayor’s valet, Dennis Chalke (39), and the other John Fore (48), a tour operator. Their bodies were found in a blood-spattered flat …
… Prosecuting counsel told the jury that both guardsmen left their barracks on Saturday, May 21, to go on weekend leave and they called at a military shop in Eton where Martin bought a Bowie knife and Bottril a throwing knife. They then went to London and in the evening went to the ‘Golden Lion’, Dean Street, Soho, a pub said to be frequented by homosexuals. They struck up a conversation with Mr. Fore who bought them drinks and took them back to the flat where Mr. Chalke was staying the weekend. ‘The guardsmen allowed themselves to be invited to the flat, probably for homosexual purposes, and they went with the intention of robbing, each armed with a knife’, said counsel. When the bodies were found both had numerous wounds to their backs and chests and Mr. Fore’s jugular vein had been slit …”
[South London Press, 8th Nov. 1977].
In 1996, an ex-soldier was jailed for life for trying to kill a man who had picked him up in a bar:
“George Rees, from Manchester, who suffered homosexual rape and abuse during his career in the Blues and Royals Cavalry Regiment, taunted Tony Grundy about his sexual tastes and then stabbed him three times with a large kitchen knife. When police arrested him he told them he had also wanted to kill the former East Enders actor and gay activist Michael Cashman for his campaign to end the controversial ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. He said that during his time in the army he was raped by a male colleague and frequently bullied, tortured and abused … Passing sentence, judge Richard Hawkins, QC, said the motive for his attack had been a combination of: ‘homophobia and a desire to steal’.”
[Guardian, 24th May 1996].
While homosexuality was still illegal in the armed forces any service personnel found to be gay were arrested, punished and then thrown out. At that time an ex-officer who disagreed with this policy said:
“Another example to me of the outmoded ideas in the Army was the subject of homosexuality. Whisper it quietly, but more than one famous Army figure of the past has been, as we’re now slowly learning from time to time, homosexual. But the official line within the Army in present day terms is that it doesn’t exist. At the first suggestion of homosexual behaviour between any of the men, they’re thrown out. The Army not only doesn’t condone homosexuality … it closes its eyes and goes blue in the face and swears it doesn’t exist. I’ve known more than a few soldiers who’ve been turfed out for homosexual behaviour. I think most people nowadays would agree that a man’s sexual inclinations have nothing to do with his qualities as a soldier. This is something I think the Army certainly needs to bring itself into the twentieth century about.”
[Soldier, Soldier, ex-officer Malcolm Grant interviewed by Tony Parker, William Heinemann Ltd 1985].
Around the world nearly 70 countries have laws making it illegal to be gay and about two-thirds of them were under British rule, or had UK connections, when these laws were first introduced. Often in the past, under British rule, anti-gay laws had been enacted throughout the Empire in attempts to impose a puritanical Victorian Christian ethos on the natives. Officials often said they were being imposed because British soldiers serving overseas might easily be led astray if there were no regulations: “They wanted to protect innocent British soldiers from the ‘exotic, mystical Orient’ – there was this very orientalised view of Asia and the Middle East that they were overly erotic.”
During this same Victorian period, London was awash with back-street brothels, into which vulnerable women and children of both sexes were trafficked to become prostitutes, who often found they had members of the British establishment as clients. People might think little has changed today, with prostitution with trafficked women still rife in the UK. And the imposition of anti-gay sex laws are also still happening around the world.
In March 2019 the Morning Star reported on new repressive laws about to introduced in Brunei:
“BRITAIN’S military presence in the south-east Asian nation of Brunei is facing fresh criticism from campaigners after the country’s autocratic ruler passed a new law making adultery and homosexuality punishable by death. The group ForcesWatch reacted: ‘Given the British military’s claims to be progressive on LGBT+ will they be taking this issue up with Brunei’s Sandhurst-trained sultan? We have personnel permanently based in the country … withdrawing would be a powerful bargaining chip, unless [the Ministry of Defence is] happy to prop up a brutal autocracy?’ The Sultan of Brunei has said stoning and whipping of homosexuals will come into force on Wednesday. The British army has three military bases in Brunei at Sittang Camp, Medicina Lines and Tuker Lines, housing around 2,000 troops under an agreement signed by then prime minister David Cameron in 2015.”
[Morning Star, article by Phil Miller, 31st March 2019].
Robert Ely had joined the British Army as a musician in 1967 and by 1979 he was appointed the Bandmaster of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. In 1986 Ely was the Senior Bandmaster when he was the subject of an investigation, which discovered his sexual orientation and he was thrown out of the army for being gay. Ely then went to Stonewall, a British LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights Pressure group, who agreed to take up this issue.
In 1998 Stonewall also took up the case of two other veterans, Jeanette Smith, who had been thrown out of the RAF, and Duncan Lustig Prean, a Royal Navy Commander, who was about to be dismissed. They won their case in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, but the judges stated, that although the ban was not justified they could not overturn it. Stonewall then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and after the case was won again the Labour Government finally lifted the ban in early 2000.
In the last decade of the 20th Century the debate about the ban on gays in the UK Armed Forces had been intense. With the MoD fighting to maintain the ban, saying that homosexuality was ‘incompatible with military service’, could ‘cause offence’, induce ‘ill-discipline’ and ‘damage morale and unit effectiveness’. The MoD’s 1996 ‘Report of the Homosexuality Policy Assessment Team’ also claimed that a survey of attitudes among serving personnel found resistance against lifting the ban, but it also indicated evidence of institutionalised homophobia in the Armed Forces.
In the UK, since the ban was overturned, gays have been allowed to openly serve in the Armed Forces and now can march in full uniform on Gay Pride marches. In 2008 General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, told members of the Army-sponsored Fourth Joint Conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexuals Matters that homosexuals were welcome to serve in the Army.
The General went on to state that respect for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual officers and rank-and-file was now ‘a command responsibility’ and was vital for ‘operational effectiveness’. However, at least two other senior officer, both Brigadiers, resigned because the ban had been lifted – and the rank-and-file opposition was regarded by some to be even stronger. So, it would be foolish to think that homophobia has entirely disappeared within the UK Armed Forces.
‘Real Men’, ‘Grot Boards’ & Sexism
Most recruits who stay the course and qualify as ‘Professionals’ become distanced from their old life and society outside. Prevalent military culture encourages the soldiers to see themselves as ‘real men’. This macho ideology often leads squaddies into increasingly sexist views, which becomes a part of their army life:
“Walk into any British military barracks and often there exists a culture of sexism fuelled by an under-ground market of hard-core pornography. Porn may not have the approval of senior officers but in trouble spots like Bosnia and Ulster, where virile young soldiers are often confined to barracks because of the hostility of locals, it is regarded as acceptable entertainment … The seeds of female debasement are sown at an early stage in a serviceman’s career. Recruits undergoing training are sometimes encouraged, if not ordered, to produce salacious pictures of girlfriends for inclusion on so-called grot boards. A grot is military-speak for a woman, and the grot boards are hung in the barrack room. The recruit who produces a picture of his girlfriend indulging in the most lurid sexual act wins a prize …”
[Express, by Sean Rayment, 11th Oct. 1997].
There is probably no stronger tribe of ‘real men’, clan, or even cult, in Britain than that of a regiment in the British Army. The feminist writer Marilyn French pointed out the characteristics of such organisations:
“Men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they are inferior. They seek a centre in other men, in male solidarity through male cults (in simple societies), priesthoods, military or paramilitary groups, academies, professions, teams, religious brotherhoods, or the new male cults. All of these exalt not men-as-a-caste but group members, posited as superior to most other men and all women. All such priesthoods teach xenophobia – hatred of strangers – and bigotry; all exalt some form of self-denial – austerity in living, denial of feeling or need – and all worship aggression and violence because all worship domination. Only the ability to dominate others makes them superior to women. And superiority to women is the very foundation of this kind of male identity.”
[The War Against Women, by Marilyn French, Penguin Books 1993].
Lance Corporal Vincent Bramley wrote a book called ‘Excursion To Hell’ about his experiences with the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands War. Aboard the SS Canberra sailing to the islands he tells about the letters of support the soldiers received:
“At home, the massive support had produced in hundreds of females a sudden liking for both the Army and Navy and they all wanted penfriends. This amused us very much. The daily sacksful of letters were dumped in our rooms and we picked out the ones we fancied.
The whole platoon would gather in one room, grab armfuls of letters and retreat to our cabins. There we would first feel an envelope to see if there was a photo in it, then gather around the growing pile of snaps and pick the best lookers. Some of the lads, even myself, found some right beauties, though writing back to hundreds of women was out of the question … Naturally, not all the photos were of beauties, and the platoons took to keeping personal ‘grot boards’. You could visit another platoon to view their board for the ‘Ugly Pig Contest’. Some of the pictures that found their way on to the boards made you wonder if England had anything worthy of Miss World. You would hear a scream of delight when someone found a ‘grot’ photo, and this would bring the rest of the platoon crashing into the cabin to look, making comments like, ‘Fuck me, who’d love that beast?’ or, ‘Pig in knickers!’.”
[Excursion To Hell – The Battle for Mount Longdon, by Vincent Bramley, Pan Books 1992].
In 1991, Gerard Lamb, an ex-para, was jailed for five years at the Old Bailey for a bayonet attack on his ex-girlfriend and her lover as they lay in bed:
“Gerard Lamb, aged 31, was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm, with intent, to actress Patricia Minskoff, 23, and Warren McCormack, 24. The court was told how Mr Lamb stabbed the couple repeatedly … Police, alerted by a lodger, arrived to find Miss Minskoff bleeding heavily.”
[Guardian, 30th July 1991].
In 1996, a similar violent tragedy happened on the Goose Green army estate in Aldershot:
“A Paratrooper butchered his wife and her best pal – then leapt to his death from a car park. Darran Mallia is thought to have been distraught over the break-up of his marriage five weeks ago. Police found his wife Alexia and her best pal Allison Williams stabbed to death at the Mallias’ Army married quarters. Both were still in their night clothes. A kitchen knife was found lying nearby.
Allison, 34, had moved in with Alexia, 27, after Darran had left.
Just minutes before the bodies were found, Darran had been seen launching himself off a multi-storey car park. A witness said he dived with his hands behind his back and splattered onto the ground below.
… A fellow Para said: ‘All Paras are wild but Taff was known as a bit of a nutter. He had tattoos all over him and liked to walk around with his shirt off. He had just come back from the Purple Star exercise in the US, he’d been in Ireland recently and was going to Ireland again. The pressure of Ireland and the fact that his relationship was up the spout must have been too much’.”
[Daily Record, 24th Aug. 1996].
In October 2020, the ‘Mail’ online carried the following article:
“MP Sarah Atherton denounces a ‘culture of silence’ over Army rapes as she says servicewomen should be allowed to speak to Parliament about sexual abuse and discrimination in the military.
- MP says too many incidences of bullying, harassment and rape slipping through.
- Campaigners say there is a ‘culture of silence’ where alleged victims’ lives are ‘made hell’.
- By law servicemen and women need permission from superiors to speak to MPs.
Servicewomen should be given special dispensation to speak to Parliament about sexual abuse and discrimination in the Armed Forces, MPs have said amid concerns over a ‘broken’ system.
Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP who sits on the Commons Defence Committee, is leading calls for reforming how alleged victims are treated. Ms Atherton, who served in the Intelligence Corps, said: ‘Too many incidences of bullying, harassment and rape in the military are slipping through a system of military justice that, many veterans say, is not fit for purpose, and which often leaves victims feeling more traumatised, angry and anxious than they were when they reported the incident in the first place’. She added: ‘Women in the military aren’t getting the justice they deserve and simply don’t feel that the military complaints system supports them. The widely held view is that it suppresses complaints rather than properly and impartially scrutinising them.’
Campaigners have told The Mail on Sunday of a culture of silence where alleged victims’ lives – and the people who speak up as witnesses to back them up – are ‘made hell’ – while investigations are stonewalled for years, allowing perpetrators to retire on full pensions.
The law requires servicemen and women to obtain permission from their superiors to speak to their MP. Ms Atherton has written to Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, asking to waive this law for the purpose of the inquiry. It is understood Mr Wallace is open to the committee’s request.
William Billington of DPAS, an organisation providing advice from veterans, said he typically receives eight calls a month from current and former service people. He said some complainants receive death threats for speaking out. Others are ‘ostracised and know they will never get promoted’, he said. ‘The complaints system is broken. There is no trust in it. This is an old boys’ network that looks after old boys.’ Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen, who resigned in February and said that the British Army needs its own MeToo movement, also stated that an independent regulator should be set up to monitor ‘toxic hotspots for defence’. She has also called for a ‘Speak out’ system that would allow troops to rate their unit and how well complaints are handled. One woman who quit the Army last year, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: ‘I’ve lost track of the number of men at Army dinner nights who put their hands up my skirt, groped my bum, stroked my thighs and told me they want sex’.”
[Mail online Friday Oct. 16th 2020].
Sky News took a look at Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen’s idea that the British Army needs its own MeToo movement:
In the last 30 years, or so, there has been dramatic increase in the recruitment, training and serving of women in Britain’s Armed Forces. Unfortunately, there has also been an equally dramatic increase in incidents of verbal and physical abuse against them. This has included:
- An entrenched attitude by some male serving personnel that women are not capable of operating like men in the Armed Forces.
- Older male trainers (often married) harassing young women recruits and coercing / grooming some into sexual acts, or having affairs, with them.
- Women soldiers being called ‘fresh meat’ when they join their regiments and being considered by some male soldiers that their function is to provide sexual services for ‘the lads’.
- Many female soldiers being verbally harassed and/or subjected to attacks of sexual abuse, including rape.
End Abuse & Discrimination in the Ranks
Sometimes in the military, basic or other forms of training, can get out of control. An example occurred between 1995 and 2002, when, on four separate occasions, young soldiers were found dead at a training barracks in Surrey. Recruits Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson all suffered gunshot wounds at the Princess Royal Barracks at Deepcut. Benton was found with five bullet wounds to his chest:
The inquests, which took place amid allegations of bullying and extreme abuse at Deepcut, returned three open verdicts and one of suicide. Further claims were made regarding the brutal training regime at the depot, including about racial abuse and sexual assaults – including rape – of female recruits:
“Senior army officers presided over a ‘catastrophic’ failure in their duty of care towards recruits, an influential Commons committee will reveal tomorrow. Following a major inquiry into abuse allegations in the army, the entire chain of command will be strongly criticised in a report by the Commons defence select committee. It will recommend the introduction of an independent complaints body to investigate abuse claims.”
[The Observer, 13th Mar. 2005, by Mark Townsend].
In 2016 the BBC made the documentary, The Army’s Shame, about the events at the Deepcut Barracks:
Despite various police and judge-led reviews, the circumstances around the training methods and deaths at Deepcut still remain hushed-up and obscured. Every time an incident like this happens the MoD will get a serving, or former high-ranking officer, to rush out a statement deploring ‘the excesses’ and saying ‘changes must, and will, be made’. But the incident will be covered-up – and then, after a while, it will all happen again – leaving the families of the victims a long and hard fight for truth and justice.
Lest anyone thinks that these sort of problems have been sorted out, in May 2022 Sean Rayment writing in the Scottish Daily Record revealed that the MoD’s 2021 official annual report: ‘Murder, Manslaughter and Sexual Offences in the Services Justice System’, showed that:
“The number of rapes reported on Britain’s military bases has doubled in the past six years. The overall numbers of sex attacks on female personnel have soared by more than 50 per cent since 2015, according to official figures. The rise comes despite the MoD putting up posters at barracks reminding soldiers they must seek consent. The overall numbers of sex attacks on female personnel have soared by more than 50 per cent over the same period. Emma Norton, founder of the Centre for Military Justice, represents dozens of former and serving members of the Armed Forces who have been assaulted by colleagues … said: ‘The victim, usually a woman, is almost always seen as a problem – interfering with the unit’s so called operational effectiveness by reporting her assault and insisting on some sort of accountability either by reporting the crime or trying to raise an internal complaint. In almost all of our cases, the experiences for victims have been career-ending and life-changing’.”
[Daily Record, article by Sean Rayment, 8th May 2022].
Anyone who has been through the processes deployed by military instructors to make soldiers, will know, that at times, it can become problematic and difficult for any individual to complete their training and service. So, surely, anyone with even a shred of compassion should be able to see that the process ought not to be made more difficult, just because a recruit has a different race, religion, skin colour, gender or sexual preference.
Those who seek to blame the victims of racist, sexist or homophobic abuse for ‘being a problem’ or ‘interfering with operational effectiveness’ should be reprimanded and brought to book. It is manifestations of racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour that are not conducive to developing high morale in military detachments, or for building unity in the ranks – and, therefore, can be detrimental to unit effectiveness in operations. That is why some senior serving or ex-officers of more enlightened views will speak out strongly against outbursts of bullying, abuse and discrimination.
Inside the Armed Forces there are probably about the same percentage of racists, sexists and homophobes as there are in Civvy Street. In the latter, however, no one has been indoctrinated by systematic training – and the stereotyping of foes – into hating ‘the other’ as enemies. While the Armed Forces in the UK continues to do this to prepare its combatants for tours-of-duty in other people’s countries there will be some soldiers who will internalise it, and in turn, use it against fellow soldiers they consider to be different, or ‘the other’.
Racist, sexist and homophobic views are still common in army units, although this is now often hidden under the counter, rather than above it in plain view, as they were before. The confined, extreme and tribal atmosphere of a British Army regiment, is one where prejudicial and bullying behaviour, if not stopped, can become malignant and grow into discrimination, victimisation, abuse and harassment – and in extreme cases can end up with assaults, suicide or murder.
A closer look must be taken, not just into the details of the overly excessive and constantly repeating instances of discrimination and abuse, but also into those aspects of the military ethos, training, operations and tactics that helps to cause these cases to happen in the first place. Only then will all the aspects to these problems start to appear and allow for solutions to be worked out. The instances of racist, sexist and homophobic discrimination, bullying and ill-treatment in the services system have gone on for far too long – and must be ended NOW!
Information compiled and written by VFP member, Aly Renwick, who joined-up aged 16 and served for 8 years in the British Army from 1960-8. His books are available from the VFP Shop.
Veterans For Peace UK
Veterans For Peace UK is a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organisation.
As a result of our collective experiences we firmly believe that:
‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’.