Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

45 Minutes

In October 2002 I was fortunate enough to visit the island of Cyprus for the first time, on holiday with my wife and children, visiting my sister-in-law and family stationed with the British Army on the Sovereign Base Area garrison of Dekelia where our brother in law was at the time a Sergeant.

It was the first time I’d visited Cyprus & also the first time I’d stayed on an Army camp. I was surprised by what I found. A British community the size of a medium English village was enclosed within the camp – which is apparently somewhat smaller than the corresponding camp at the west of the island – Akrotiri. The houses were reminiscent of UK Council Houses – with the very obvious difference that there were was a complete lack of graffiti, poor maintenance or anti-social behaviour – there’s a very low tolerance of any of these in the Army (although I think they make an exception for binge drinking !)

Security was very low key – being admitted on the strength of our passports on the first day, and with a wave of a letter from the office on the camp for the rest of the week. (It was by comparison very stringent when we visited again the following spring after the invasion of Iraq).

We came and went as we pleased, and spent a glorious few days relaxing on the beach in what was effectively the last week of the Summer season, drinking copious Brandy Sours from the bar of the Sergeants’ Beach Club.

My brother-in-law was not with us however. Even then there was much talk about an imminent invasion of Iraq, and he had been placed on exercise in a country very close to Iraq, which can now be seen as a rehearsal for the eventual invasion. He was away for most of the week.

Not that we worried much.The sun was warm and lacked some of it’s burning power due to the lateness in the year. It was close to perfect for us. On the Friday afternoon shortly after three though, my sister-in-law got a call on her mobile phone. It was her husband – calling from the middle east – he was coming home, and would be back this evening.

We quickly stirred our stumps, drained our cocktails, deflated the lilo’s, got the kids dressed and headed for the Naafi supermarket to get some stuff in to cook an even meal. As we drew up in the car outside the house (on the base) who should we see but my brother-in-law walking down the garden path – slightly miffed that he’d waited 5 minutes and no one was there.

He’d flown back straight to the camp in the space of about an hour – it might have been a bit more – we weren’t timing, just coming home from the beach.  We were surprised to see him so quickly – but put it down to us still thinking that we were in England – Cyprus is, after all, well over to the East of the Mediterranean.

Anyway it was good to see him before we went home the next day. We didn’t think much of it until some months later, when a call to my wife’s sister found her in quite an agitated state, as the camp had given information to all households to the effect that they were in likely firing range of Iraqi weapons, and that weapons could be targeted on the island with as little as 45 minutes notice. This obviously made sense to her, and to us, remembering the speed with which her husband returned home after the exercises the previous October.

That was the first time I heard the phrase “45 minutes” in relation to Iraq. Not long after that we saw the claims of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq being target on British forces within 45 minutes. I assumed that it was this warning that they referred to, yet all these years later the debate about this claim still rumbles on, and once more yesterday it cropped up in the Chilcot inquiry.

After reading of Alastair Campbell’s questioning at the inquiry yesterday I have to confess that it upsets me that so many people are more ready to doubt our political leaders, than to accept their explanations for the events that led to the war.

It seems that people have forgotten that Iraq was the country that launched an unprovoked invasion of neighbouring Kuwait some years earlier, and during the military operations to re-take Kuwait, deliberately fired SCUD missiles into densely populated civilian areas of non-belligerent Israel in an attempt to draw them into the war.

Given that miniaturised nuclear weapons of less than a metre in length, such as the Davy Crockett missile, were ready for use as long ago as the 1960’s by the US and allegedly by the Soviet Union. It is not stretching a point too far to suspect that Iraq may have been capable of mounting a small nuclear strike on for instance Dekelia, or perhaps the holiday resort of Aya Napa, with less than an hours warning that it was on its way.

The Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan have proved long and arduous, and few would derive any pleasure from the death and suffering they have caused, and I can’t imagine there are any who don’t want to see the end of it. But don’t forget, despite the very significant protests against the Iraq war, it was supported at the time by the majority of the parliamentary Labour party, and more or less all of the Conservatives – and to my memory enjoyed huge public support.

Whilst some appear shocked and disappointed by Alastair Campbell’s “No regrets” stance on the war, I am not one of them, and in fact would have hoped for nothing less from him.

War’s a horrible business – but please let’s try not to be too harsh on the people who we elected to make those decisions for us, just because things turned out to be more unpleasant than we expected. I suspect many of us would have made the same decisions, armed with same information, had we been in that position ourselves.

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January 13, 2010 - Posted by | news, politics | , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. A couple of thoughts on this:

    Cyprus is certainly within range of the Al-Hussein (the Iraqi-developed variant of the Scud), but the Al-Hussein has a CEP of around a kilometre, making it essentially useless for anything other than creating concern – or delivering area denial weapons (including chemical and biological weapons). The warning on such an attack would not be an hour – it would be in the region of five minutes, assuming boost phase detection.

    Everyone accepted at the time (even Alistair Campbell) that Iraq did not have a real nuclear weapons programme, let alone nuclear weapons. The challenges of building a nuclear weapon are significant; the challenges of miniaturising a nuclear weapon for ballistic missile delivery far greater.

    Sir Richard Dearlove admitted in 2003 that the September Dossier’s 45 minute claim referred to battle field munitions (artillery shells containing chemical and biological agents) and not warheads for Al-Hussein missiles.

    Iraq’s attacks on Israel during Desert Storm were certainly intended to bring Israel into the war. If Israel had attacked Iraq it would have created huge domestic pressure for Arab members of the alliance to withdraw their support. It is unarguably true that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons at the time, but they did not use these when attacking Israel. The Israeli government had (and maintains) a policy of responding to any attack with a weapon of mass destruction (chemical, biological, nuclear) with it’s own nuclear arsenal.

    Following the end of Desert Storm, UNSCOM destroyed the remaining Iraqi stocks of Al-Hussein. Iraq did subsequently start to develop new short range (<200km) weapons, and the fact that these exceeded the 150km range limit set by UN resolution was one of the bases advanced by the US for the invasion. Cyprus is several times that distance from Iraq.

    For the record, I don't oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein (although I do think the 2003 war and its aftermath is a master class in how not to execute regime change) but I do believe we should be honest about what happened, and robustly resist attempts to lie to us about the reasons for it.

    Comment by mtpt | January 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. Just to add a comment that may be relevant to the 45 minute references in the dossier.

    The dossier uses 2 main variations referring to 45 minutes.
    1. “.. planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”.
    2. “.. Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so”.

    I recollect reading these phrases at the time and immediately relating them to a radio interview that had been held with a chemicals weapons expert several weeks before the dossier was published. In the interview he outlined the process involved in preparing a shell or other munition for use.

    For safety reasons the munitions were stored empty of the chemical agents. In order to create a lethal weapon two relatively harmless chemicals had to be poured into the receptacles in the munition, and the weapon primed. When he was asked how long this process took he said “45 minutes”.

    This seems to fit the meaning of the phrases used in the dossier, which is very hard to interpret as being anything to do with flight-time of the weapon. The use of the word “deploy” in the second version of the wording could be misinterpreted as being in the sense of ultimate delivery to a target, but is more usually interpreted militarily in the sense of releasing the weapons from storage to their intended launch sites. This latter interpretation is clearly the meaning of the first wording where the weapons are being prepared prior to deployment.

    Then there is the context and tone of these phrases within the document. Naturally the press created headlines like “Just 45 minutes from attack”. This is unfortunately the way that the 45 minutes phrase is remembered rather than a factual statement about how quickly such weapons could be brought into use. The dossier was wrong not to clarify the meaning, and was very wrong to imbue a special sense of threat. After all it would just take 5 minutes, let us say, from a decision to do so, to deploy a case of conventional artillary shells.

    So the dossier should have spelled out that it believed that Saddam had already developed and manufactured chemical weapons, and that therefore, rather than being months away from use, they were stockpiled and could be armed within 45 minutes. And that this was the extent of the potential threat, subject to them having workable delivery munitions such as artillery shells, or possibly missile warheads.

    However the myth lives on: Andrew Neil, on the excellent television programme This Week on 14th January 2010, after Alistair Campbell’s testimony to the Chilcot Enquiry, commenting on Michael Portillo’s concern about the 45 minute phrase which appeared in Tony Blair’s foreword, interrupted to clarify “this is that we were within 45 minutes of a nuclear attack in some form”.

    Bells and whistles! The Government only have themselves to blame for creating a memorable phrase which was so open to misinterpretation.

    Comment by William Urquhart | January 20, 2010 | Reply

    • thanks for your comment. Sorry I don’t have much time to read or reply tonight.

      Comment by northernheckler | January 20, 2010 | Reply


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