Sam Pivnik: Obituary.


Sam Pivnik visiting the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2008


Szmuel ‘Sam’ Pivnik was born in the Polish Silesian town of Bedzin on 1 September 1926, the son of a Jewish tailor, Lejbus Pivnik, and his second wife Feigla.  Sam was the second of six children in the family.  His older brother Nuchim (‘Nathan’) was born two years before him and he had a younger sister Chana, and three younger brothers, Meir, Wolf and Jozef.  He also had an older half-sister, Handel (or Hendla), from his father’s first marriage, who lived with the family.

Bedzin was a town with a substantial Jewish population – more than 50% – and, according to Sam, his father Lejbus, a pious, orthodox Jew, was seen as one of the ‘Elders’ of the community.  A man to whom others would go for advice and support.  The family lived in a small, rented, ground floor apartment at 77 Modrzejowska*, across a courtyard from Lejbus’s workshop.

By his own account, Sam was a difficult and unruly child, more interested in football and playing with his mates, both Jewish and Gentile, than with study or religion.  He was educated at the ‘Rappaport School’, a progressive, Jewish-run institution which also catered for the Gentile population, but as the son of a religious family, he had to spend his afternoons at Shul, learning Hebrew and scripture.  Their holidays were spent in the countryside around Wodzislaw, where they had relatives, playing in the woods and fields and swimming in the river.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland was launched on Sam’s 13th birthday and the first he heard about it was when some of his friends told him that there was a commotion down at the local barracks.  Sam and friends went to watch as the 23rd Light Artillery marched off to war behind the horse-drawn guns.

Bedzin was very close to what was then the border with Germany and by late morning, the population could hear the distant rumble of approaching war.  In mid afternoon, a German bombing raid attacked the zinc works, the copper works and the railway station.  Sam ran home to where his mother and sister were preparing the Sabbath meal, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him what was happening.  For the first time that he could remember, the family didn’t attend synagogue on the Saturday, and as the weekend drew on, Bedzin began to fill with refugees from the fighting.

On Monday morning the schools were closed and rumours were circulating that the British and French had declared war on Germany and were coming to the rescue.  A crowd gathered to greet the Allied troops but the soldiers who appeared were a Wehrmacht reconnaissance unit and the population went home in confusion.

A curfew was imposed on Bedzin although the Germans rounded up a few hundred adult men, mostly Jews, to clear bomb damage and unexploded munitions from the bombing raid.  Sam and his family stayed at home out of fear.  On 8 September, elements of an SS Einsatzkommando under the command of SS Major General Udo von Woyrsch arrived in the town and, as the day continued, the Pivniks hid at home, listening to outbreaks of shooting in the streets.  That evening, the main synagogue, a large building on a hill top, was burned to the ground and over the next two days, as many as 500 local Jewish men, women and children were murdered in the streets.  This was effectively the end of Sam’s childhood.

For the next three and a half years Sam worked, primarily as a joiner in a furniture factory run by a German named Haber.  Haber was a humane man who liked Sam and would sometimes give him gifts of food to take home to his family, although this caused some problems:  Lejbus would not allow non-Kosher food in his house, even though the family were living at a near starvation level, and Sam would have to smuggle the food in and ensure that his mother and siblings ate it when their father was absent.

As the war escalated, particularly after the invasion of the USSR in 1941, conditions deteriorated.  In March 1942, Sam’s older brother Nathan was deported to a work camp at Blechhammer in Silesia, a ‘sub-camp’ of Auschwitz, where he also worked as a joiner, and in August 1942, the first major ‘Aktion’ took place in Bedzin.  Sam and his family were among around 20,000 Jews ordered to report to the ‘Hakoah’ stadium on the edge of town (a similar number went to the Sarmacia stadium) where, in a day of sweltering heat punctuated by thunderstorms, the SS selected a group to be sent to labour camps and a second group for ‘resettlement’ in the east.  The resettlement group included his grandmother, Ruchila Pivnik, aged 82.  They were taken to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival.

About six weeks later, the Jews of Bedzin were forced out of their homes and moved to ‘Kamionka’, a kind of shanty on the edge of Bedzin which was to serve as the town’s ghetto.  With the war going badly for Germany, the pace of ‘deportations’ began to increase and by July 1943, most of Bedzin’s Jews had been sent to their deaths at Auschwitz, a little more than an hour away.  At the end of July, the final clearance of the ghetto was launched.  Sam and his family had tried to prepare for this by stockpiling what food they could and preparing a hideout in the roof space of their shack but they were defeated by the hot summer weather.  Within a day or so they had run out of water and were reduced to drinking their own urine, sweetened with sugar.  Eventually they gave up, and turned themselves in.

The trope is that all Jews were transported to Auschwitz in cattle trucks, but the Jews of the Bedzin ghetto went in commuter trains.  Sam maintained that throughout this journey, his father was expecting God to intervene and save them.  He didn’t.  Shortly after arrival, Sam’s father, mother and four younger siblings were marched into the gas chambers and murdered.  Handel, his half-sister, survived for a week or so before she, too, was killed.  Sam, although small of stature, was selected to work.

After a period of ‘quarantine’, Sam was selected to join the ‘Rampe Kommando‘, the group of prisoners at Auschwitz II – Birkenau, who met and unloaded the deportation trains.  This was, in many ways, good luck.  The SS turned a blind-eye to the Rampe Kommando looting food from the possessions of the Jews who had been sent to the gas chambers (they drew the line at valuables, possession of which was punishable by instant shooting) and Sam had more or less enough to live on.

Sam worked on the Rampe at Birkenau until December 1943, when he contracted typhus.  Miraculously, he survived.  It seems from Sam’s account that he was quite a popular prisoner in the camp and the Jewish orderlies in the sanatorium – normally merely a waiting room for death – tried their best to help him.  When he recovered, he was relocated to a mining camp at Fuerstengruebe, another sub-camp of Auschwitz, where he resumed work as a joiner.

This was, in some ways the most interesting period of Sam’s imprisonment but the one he was least keen to talk about.  Although he was still not yet eighteen, he was appointed overseer of a group of carpenters and bricklayers, responsible for productivity and discipline, and in this way received access to extra food and other privileges.  There was an unusual dynamic at Fuerstengruebe.  The SS Commander, Sergeant Max Schmidt, was a young wounded combat veteran who seems to have decided to opt for an easy life: as a result, he reached an understanding with the senior Jewish prisoners that, if they didn’t cause him trouble, he would follow a relatively hands off approach.  This did not mean that there was no brutality there, many still died, but it does appear to have been less systematic than in most parts of the concentration camp system.

With the approach of the Russians in January 1945, Fuerstengruebe was evacuated along with the rest of the Auschwitz complex and after a period without food, being shuttled around south-eastern Germany in open topped railway wagons in freezing conditions, Sam arrived at the Dora Mittelbau camp in the Harz Mountains.  He stayed there, in appalling conditions, until March 1945 when Schmidt, the former commander of Fuerstengruebe, rounded up a group of former trusties and Kapos from his camp and transported them, by barge, to the area of his family home in north Germany, where he distributed them as labourers amongst local farmers.  For the next month, this group lived relatively well, sleeping in barns and eating fresh farm produce as the Third Reich collapsed around them.  For Sam, it ended in the most dramatic fashion.

On 2 May 1945, two days after Hitler’s squalid suicide in Berlin, Schmidt was ordered to take his prisoners to the nearby port of Neustadt where they were to be loaded onto ships.  He duly complied and Sam found himself on board a former cruise ship called the ‘Cap Arcona’, along with some 5000 other mostly jewish concentration camp inmates.  Literally within minutes of his arrival, the Cap Arcona was struck by rockets from British fighter bombers, caught fire and began to sink.  Sam was one of only a few hundred prisoners who were able to escape, swimming ashore with the help of floating wreckage.  The next morning, as he sat shivering on the beach, a German farmer drove up and told them that the British had arrived at Neustadt, and gave them a lift into the town.

Sam spent the next year or so in Germany, where he was miraculously reunited with his brother Nathan, who had also survived, before migrating to London where they had an aunt, Lejbus’s sister, who sponsored them.  For a while, they worked together as tailors but, in 1948, Sam was smuggled out of Britain to fight as a member of a British unit of the Israeli Defence Force in the Arab-Israeli War, where he was an armoured vehicle driver.  He considered staying on in Israel once victory was secured but eventually returned to London.

For much of the rest of his life, Sam lived in Golder’s Green, sharing a house with his brother Nathan (and later, Nathan’s wife Jill), and dealing in art and antiques from a gallery in Notting Hill.  He died in the early hours of this morning, the day before his 91st birthday.

Sam was an extraordinary man.  He was small, not much more than five feet tall, and in later years often seemed physically frail, but to survive what he did suggests that he had a core of pure steel.  The psychological scars were, nevertheless, very deep.

I got to know him as his ghostwriter, after two previous writers had tried and failed to produce a publishable autobiography for him.  Over the course of several years, I interviewed him at length, including twice travelling to Auschwitz with him, but the project stumbled at the hurdle that there were areas of his experience that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about.  He was desperate to tell his story but at the same time, much of it was too painful for him.  I did eventually produce a manuscript, which was subsequently adapted by another writer into his memoir ‘Survivor’, but the book which was published skirted around some of the most interesting – from a historian’s point of view at least – of Sam’s experiences, whilst interpolating many of the cliches of modern Holocaust literature and cinema.  With hindsight, I think that was what Sam wanted.  He wanted to be recognised as a survivor and for the horror of what he had been through, but the reality of his experience was still too awful.  He could cope with an account that was partially, at least, ‘generic’ for want of a better word.

Sam never married, much to his regret, but he had a circle of friends and supporters, led in recent years by the artist David Breuer-Weil and the composer Philip Appleby, who looked after him and maintained his morale. I hope he is now at peace.


*The building is still there, substantially unchanged, but has been renumbered ’81’.




Review: Atomic Blonde: Kickass meets Tinker, Tailor… and not in a good way.



Mrs Weale and I are currently ‘home alone’.  Number 1 son has just moved into his own flat; Number 2 is in India with his girlfriend for the rest of the month; and our daughter is in Spain, staying with a friend.  This has given us the opportunity to do something we don’t get to do enough: go to the movies!

Last week we saw ‘Dunkirk’.  Any review by me would be pretty much superfluous: it’s a really good film – as pretty much all the real film critics have told us – and my only niggle is that I think Christopher Nolan’s decision to eschew CGI was a mistake: a few more destroyers and a few thousand more men on the beaches would have added a lot to the epic scale of the movie.  Other than that though: brilliant.

This week it was the turn of ‘Atomic Blonde‘, the graphic novel-based Charlize Theron vehicle, directed by David Leitch.  Uh oh, not so good.

Having seen the trailers, I’d kinda, sorta formed the impression that Atomic Blonde was one of those darkly comic actioners in the mould of Kickass, Deadpool or even John Wick (which Leitch co-directed): violent and grisly but obviously rooted in a fantasy parallel universe where the characters can kick and punch the living shit out of each other and still turn up for a rendezvous in a nightclub in a skin-tight dress and thigh boots without anyone being too bothered.

But so far as I could tell, we are intended to take Atomic Blonde reasonably seriously.  The action takes place in Berlin in 1989, just as the Warsaw Pact is beginning to fall apart.  A British MI6 agent has got hold of ‘the list’ – a document which contains the identities of a whole bunch of undercover field agents and which, conveniently for the product placement department, is hidden in an expensive watch.  He gets his brains blown out by a big, bearded hipster with a foreign accent who takes the watch.  Cue Charlize.  She is sent by MI6 to Berlin to retrieve it.  The complication is that there is a double-agent – ‘Satchel’ – within MI6 (isn’t there always?) who may be compromised by the list and obviously won’t want Charlize to take it back to London:  ‘Trust nobody’, Charlize is duly told by ‘C’ (James Faulkner – last seen being barbecued by a dragon in ‘Game of Thrones’).

Mayhem ensues.  Charlize is met at the airport by a couple of blokes who are actually Soviet spies, she realises this in the car and beats the crap out of them, killing one and crashing the car.  She is then scooped up by ‘Percival’ (James McAvoy) the MI6 head of station in Berlin,  and off we go.

Over the next – nearly – two hours we bump into Eddie Marsan, playing ‘Spyglass’ – an MI6 mole in the Stasi – who originally stole the list but has also memorised it; Sofia Boutella as ‘Delphine Lasalle’, a French agent with whom Charlize has a lesbian hook-up (which will please the T&A aficionados); and an assortment of large, bearded Scandinavians playing the KGB/Stasi contingent with whom Charlize tangles violently from time to time.

Here’s the thing:  if the plotting was subtle, or the script had any wit to it, this could have been one of those guilty pleasure romps in the Guy Ritchie/Matt Vaughn style; equally, with a bit more backstory and characterisation, we could have had a semi-credible (in a good way) Jason Bourne-style high-voltage action fest.  In reality, we get neither.  The plot is mundane and cliché-ridden (the twists are chucked in with all the subtlety of a bowling ball being lobbed onto a ping-pong table), the script is leaden and the directing, with the exception of the fight sequences, is by the numbers.  I started looking at my watch about an hour in and Mrs W was doing the same.

On the positive side, the cinematography was great: I spent some time in Berlin in the 80s before the wall came down and it did capture the bleak glamour of that era, despite having Budapest as the principal location; and the soundtrack added a little of the wit that was missing from the script (though I could have done without two different versions of Nena’s ’99 Luftballoons’).

To give them some credit, the actors made the most of the poor hand that the script had dealt them.  McAvoy as the MI6 officer in Berlin came across as a petulant twat, but he was probably meant to; Boutella was pretty convincing as the ingenue French secret agent out of her depth; and Charlize Theron can certainly do a turn as a hard-case, as she demonstrated in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.  On the other hand, Toby Jones and John Goodman both phoned in their performances, with Jones reprising his turn as Percy Alleline (minus the Scots accent) from ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.

I’ve seen some online reviews suggesting that Atomic Blonde has some sort of man-hating feminist agenda: if so, I didn’t notice.  In reality there are several gratuitous nude scenes – including some ‘hot girl-on-girl action’ – which don’t exactly fit with the Millie Tant worldview and I would be surprised if that was the intention.  Actually, it is moderately refreshing to see women carrying an action film like this; it’s just a little disappointing it isn’t a better movie.

So, to sum up: it isn’t dire, but neither is it worth the £28 I shelled out for two tickets and I’m pretty sure we’d have done better with pizza and iTunes.


Rating:  ★★☆☆☆

The Police need to be routinely armed

PC Keith Palmer had a split second decision to make on the afternoon of 22 March 2017.  A big man with a shaven head and a ‘Hand of Allah’ beard was running towards him, waving at least one knife.  Did he run and hide; or did he confront him?  Heroically, PC Palmer tried to stop Khalid Masood.  In the struggle that followed, Keith Palmer received multiple stab injuries and subsequently died; Khalid Massood was shot three times by a ministerial close protection officer, who happened to be standing nearby, and also died.

Keith Palmer was one of the police officers on duty at the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster – the British Parliament – in effect the first obstacle to anyone attempting to gain entry to the parliamentary estate.  He was not armed, neither was any police officer normally stationed there who was close enough to intervene.  Had it not happened to be a Wednesday, when ministers converge on the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions, there would have been no armed response within reach.  As it was, an armed officer happened to be standing by the Secretary of State for Defence’s car and moved in.  Keith Palmer still died.

Any infantryman or sapper – in fact any soldier – will tell you that an obstacle that is not covered by both observation and fire is not an obstacle.  Keith Palmer was not an obstacle to anyone attempting to make a forced entry into the Palace of Westminster, although in his hi-viz jacket he might have looked like one to his complacent commanders.

It is no longer good enough to look like an obstacle. Islamist terrorists are, by and large, expecting to die during their attacks.  They are hoping to inflict as much damage as possible during the course of their attack. They are unlikely to be deterred by an unarmed copper in a hi-viz vest. They will try to kill him or her and carry on with their business until someone actually does physically stop them.  Had an armed officer not been – coincidentally – present, we can only imagine what further carnage might have been inflicted.

Our police need to be able to stop attacks and ultimately the only way they can do that is by killing (or, I suppose, incapacitating) the terrorists.  Realistically, the only way they can do that is by shooting them.  They cannot shoot them if they are not armed.

And it isn’t just the once-in-a-blue-moon terrorist scenarios we need to be worrying about.  This is no longer the 1930s.  British society has changed. Many criminals operating in the UK today come from places where armed criminal violence is commonplace.  And to add to this, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has created a glut of illegal guns in Europe.

What this means is that police officers in the inner cities are regularly going in to potentially armed situations with no means to resolve them.  Of course we have armed response vehicles circulating around but they are rarely likely to be the first responders. Instead it will usually be unarmed coppers, like Keith Palmer, who have to put themselves in harm’s way.  That means that some of them, like Keith Palmer, will be killed or seriously injured.

92% of Metropolitan Police officers are not routinely armed.  Many, of course, do not need to be because they are not in roles where they are likely to confront armed criminals but the fact is that police officers who may find themselves in a situation in which they are confronting terrorists or armed criminals should be able to defend both themselves and the public.  To do that, they must be able to deploy more than a truncheon, a pepper spray and harsh language.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian Islamist terrorist who killed 86 people and injured more than 400 by driving a truck along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on 14 July 2016 was eventually stopped by ordinary French Police shooting at him with their sidearms.  Khalid Masood ran down three unarmed police officers as he crossed Westminster Bridge.  We don’t know if they were trying to stop him but if they were, they would have had a better chance if they had been able to shoot at him.

This is no longer a hypothetical situation.  The threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK, and particularly in our major cities, has been assessed as ‘severe’ for some time and is likely to remain so.  It is not unreasonable to suppose that Masood’s actions will inspire other terrorist self-starters to have a go.  The list of potential targets is more or less infinite.  Putting more armed officers around the Palace of Westminster won’t help much if an attack takes place in Cardiff, Glasgow or Coventry.  We cannot afford this level of complacency; police patrols need to be routinely armed.



Sebastian Gorka and the Vitézi Rend


In my last blog I wrote about how Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump, appears to have tried to suggest that a short period in a British Army reserve intelligence unit in the early 1990s adds to his credibility as an ‘expert’ in counter-terrorism.  In fact it seems extremely unlikely that Gorka would have gained any operational experience during his service and in reality the unit that he was a member of had no counter-terrorist role  – in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or anywhere else –  at that time.

Perhaps more troublingly, recent reports have highlighted Gorka’s habit of wearing the insignia of the Vitézi Rend, a hereditary order of military merit created by the Hungarian ruler Admiral Miklós Horthy in 1920. In 1941, Horthy took Hungary into the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany and was still Head of State in the summer of 1944 when Adolf Eichmann began deporting Hungary’s Jewish minority to Auschwitz for extermination. Membership of the  Vitézi Rend continued to be awarded until Horthy was deposed, at gunpoint, by Nazi German intelligence and special forces personnel in October 1944.

At the end of the war, the Vitézi Rend was abolished along with a number of other organisations and political parties  which had been entangled with both Admiral Horthy’s government and the subsequent fascist ‘Arrow Cross’ puppet government of Ferenc Szálasi.  At this time it was listed by the US State Department as an organisation linked with Nazi Germany.  The Vitézi Rend has not been reconstituted by the Hungarian state and nowadays exists in the form of a number of competing private associations of a broadly right-wing, nationalist – and in some cases anti-semitic –  character which seek to claim the heritage of the order, and the prestige, if that is the right term, of the Horthy era.


Miklós Horthy (left) and friend.

Admiral Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) was appointed Commander in Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in February 1918 and led it until the defeat of the Central Powers in Europe and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the autumn of 1918.  In 1919, Horthy was asked by the government of Hungary to take command of a counter-revolutionary army to help put down a Bolshevik coup, led by the revolutionary Bela Kun.  This was accomplished, with the help of Romanian forces, by the autumn of 1919 and Hungary was re-established as a parliamentary monarchy, with the odd proviso that it had no monarch, as the victorious allies would not allow the King – the former Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Emperor Karl IV – to return to the country to take up the throne.  Consequently, the Hungarian parliament elected Horthy as Regent and Head of State.  A position that he held until he was deposed by the Nazis who were unhappy that he was trying to extricate Hungary from the war against the Soviet Union.

Doubtless, Miklós Horthy was not a nice man by current standards.  He allied Hungary – albeit reluctantly – with Nazi Germany, instituted anti-semitic laws and did far less than he could and should have done when the Nazis began to deport Hungary’s Jewish population to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.  But he was neither a fascist nor a Nazi, except in the rather crass sense that the modern left applies to right-wing people whose views or actions they particularly dislike.  Instead he was a reactionary, irredentist, monarchist, nationalist conservative whose primary motivation in co-operating with Hitler and Nazi Germany was to recover territory lost by Hungary at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.  He was certainly personally anti-Semitic but his record suggests that he made efforts from time to time to protect Hungary’s Jewish minority from the worst excesses of the Hungarian radical right.  It was nowhere near enough of course and he shamefully failed to prevent the Nazi extermination of Hungarian Jews in 1944 but his relationship with Nazi Germany was sufficiently ambiguous that he was not prosecuted by the Allies at the end of the war and died in retirement in Portugal in 1957.

So does Gorka’s wearing of the medal and use of the title ‘vitéz’ imply that he has neo-Nazi or anti-semitic links as some commentary has suggested?  Well possibly.  Gorka certainly has links to the Hungarian nationalist right and within that spectrum there are some more or less open anti-semites and neo-Nazis.  Although Gorka has denied any connection with the extremist right it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that he came into contact with them, but that certainly doesn’t mean he shared their views and I don’t think there is any actual evidence to suggest that Gorka is a fascist or Nazi.  On the other hand, Gorka’s own explanation suggests that a different interpretation of the significance of his wearing the Vitézi Rend might be a better fit.

Gorka told the London Daily Telegraph that: “My father was nine years old when the Second World War started… I was born in 1970. Neither of us could be guilty of what they’re stating.”

Which is perfectly true.  Realistically, neither can be associated with the crimes of the Horthy era.  Equally however, neither can be associated with the actual Vitézi Rend, which was abolished in 1945.  At best, the medal that Gorka wears is something that he (or his father, as the award is supposedly hereditary) was either awarded by one of the several competing non-state groups which claim to be able to award the medal, or he simply awarded it to himself.

Naive soul that I am, I was unaware, until a few years ago, that there is a thriving market in bogus titles of chivalry and nobility.  The scales were lifted from my eyes when I followed the unmasking – on the British ‘Army Rumour Service‘ website (a raucous and very unofficial discussion forum for serving and ex-members of the British Army) – of James Shortt, an ex-nurse and martial arts instructor who constructed a glorious military history for himself and then seems to have spent much of the 1990s selling military training to the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Shortt claimed, amongst other things, to have been awarded a Papal knighthood for his contribution to bringing the Cold War to an end and also, surprise, surprise, to be a Vitézi Rend. Further poking around the grubby recesses of the internet throws up all kinds of examples of people who have awarded themselves titles of nobility and knighthoods, whilst the fraudulent wearing of military decorations with the intent to obtain tangible benefits led the US Congress to pass the Stolen Valor act in 2013 (a British version is also under discussion).

Why do people award themselves medals and titles?  Ironically, I suspect, it’s to gain respect which they wouldn’t otherwise receive and which they don’t deserve.  A bit like claiming operational counter-terrorist experience.  Oddly enough, soon after I published my first blog on Gorka, I was contacted by a former schoolmate of Gorka’s from St Benedict’s in Ealing.  He told me that Gorka hadn’t played ‘Number 8’ for the school rugby XV as he’d claimed in one interview.  It does all seem to fit into a pattern.

Sebastian Gorka and his distinguished military career.


Sebastian Gorka is on the right.. badoom-tish!

One of the curious paradoxes of the Trump administration is that, at the very top, there is a mixture of supremely competent professionals – James Mattis and HR McMaster spring to mind – working in the same national security space as quirky ideological warriors like Stephen Bannon.  Sebastian Gorka, the British-born commentator of Hungarian extraction, who was named as a Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump in January 2017, seemed to straddle this divide:  an academic specialist in counter-terrorism with some radical ideas about how to defeat Jihadi Islamism.

I took a mild interest in Gorka because he had apparently served in an Intelligence Corps unit of the British Territorial Army (TA) in the early 1990s.  For non-British readers, the Territorial Army* was the name of the part-time British Army reserve established in the early years of the 20th century primarily for home defence but which became, during the Cold War, an integral part of the British orbat in our plans to defend western Europe from Soviet aggression as part of NATO; it was and is similar to the US National Guard in many respects.  As it happens, I was commissioned as a regular army Intelligence Corps officer in 1985 and it’s always nice to see chaps from the Corps doing well for themselves.

Last month, someone on twitter posted a link to this profile of Gorka in the Washington Post and my ‘spidey senses’ immediately began to tingle.  It’s a throwaway sentence:  “He went to college in London and spent three years as a reserve intelligence soldier in the British army, focused on the conflict in Northern Ireland”.  This struck me as extremely unlikely: no part of the TA, to my knowledge, was ever committed to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The only part-time soldiers to be directly involved were members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and their successors in the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, who had a different legal status to the TA.

A little digging revealed that Gorka had actually been a member of 22 Intelligence Company, of the Intelligence and Security Group (Volunteers) between 1990 and 1992, as he told a Hungarian newspaper.  22 Company was a unit I knew well from my own service. Back then, in the dying days of the Cold War, it was a specialist unit of interrogators and ‘tactical questioners’ with a NATO role.  It was an eclectic group of people, recruited largely on the basis of their language skills, who were trained under the auspices of the Joint Service Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent.  As the son of Hungarian exile parents and a Hungarian speaker, Gorka would have been a good fit.  But it had nothing to do with Northern Ireland, so if Gorka was claiming this in the US, he was being somewhat economical with the truth.

In itself, this is kinda, sorta understandable.  Gorka took a first degree in Theology and Philosophy at a theological college of London University and his subsequent transformation into a counter-terrorism theorist seems to have taken place whilst he was studying for a Master’s degree, and subsequently a PhD, in Budapest which might be seen by some to lack the credibility of equivalent qualifications from, say, Harvard or Cambridge.  I can see why he might want to have credentials as an operational counter-terrorism specialist from one of the world’s leading armies.  It doesn’t make it true though.

A week or so back I asked a friend, who was in 22 Company at that time, whether he remembered him.  “I don’t recall Gorka immediately, but that’s not to suggest that we may not have collided at some time in the great Venn diagram of life”, was his response.

As it happens, Gorka was profiled (paywalled) today by the Sunday Times in London.  It’s a soft piece, written as a kind of ‘hometown boy makes good’ story, but interestingly, it presents a new version of his military service.  According to the Sunday Times:  “Gorka spent three years from 1990 as a part-time soldier with the Territorial Army. Part of 22 Military Intelligence Company, he used his language skills (he speaks German and some French as well as Hungarian) to collect evidence for the war crimes tribunal set up after the collapse of Yugoslavia”.

Once again, the spidey senses twitched.  Would members of 22 Company really have been collecting war crimes evidence between 1990 and 1992 when Gorka was a member?  It seems unlikely to me: their role was collecting intelligence, a very different task to collecting evidence that could be used in a court.  A couple of other easily checkable facts also seem to suggest this isn’t true: firstly, there were no significant deployments of British military personnel to the former Yugoslavia until September 1992 when 1 Cheshires Battlegroup deployed under the command of Lt Col Bob Stewart (now a Conservative MP) on Operation GRAPPLE as part of UNPROFOR; secondly, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia wasn’t actually set up until May of 1993.

It seems to me possible that Gorka might have been employed interviewing – ‘debriefing’ in intelligence jargon – individuals returning from the former Yugoslavia to gain snippets of information from them.  Members of 22 Company certainly did this with returnees from Iraq and Kuwait at the start of the Gulf War in 1990 (I know this because I was one of the people who organised it) and I’m told the ‘Defence Debriefing Team’ was put on a more formal footing thereafter (by which time I’d moved on).  Even so, at this stage it wasn’t about acquiring war crimes evidence but rather basic situational awareness, so he is evidently dramatising his role, if indeed he ever did this work.

So what?  In the grand scheme of life an individual exaggerating his military service is no big deal. It’s kind of distasteful, I suppose, but it happens an awful lot and most military veterans I know find it funny, more than anything else.  But there are special circumstances in Gorka’s case.  He is a senior advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful armed forces that have ever existed.  Gorka’s views appear to have been formed by his studies at a university that is not renowned as a centre for the study of counter-terrorism and, despite his attempts to suggest otherwise, he has never been an operational practitioner of counter-terrorism.  By all accounts that I have read, Gorka has never done any academic fieldwork in counter-terrorism either.  His real expertise seems to be in getting gigs as a ‘talking head’ on right wing news media, the rest is pretty much flim-flam.

It’s up to President Trump to decide who he wants to advise him, of course, but my experience over the years has been that proven bullshitters are rarely a good choice.

*Now renamed the ‘Army Reserve’

The ‘Special Relationship’

Theresa May is off for a chat with President Donald Trump today – the first foreign leader to get a face-to-face with him since he was inaugurated – and, as usual, we are faced with the usual slightly embarrassing discussion about whether there is, in fact, a ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK.  It always goes the same way: the left and the ‘futilitarians’ of the right and centre – sneeringly crow that the UK is nothing more than a supplicant for whatever largesse the US is prepared to hand out; the ‘Atlanticists’ of the right argue that the UK has a vital role in guiding the US Government through the choppy waters of international affairs, as if the State Department was entirely staffed by second-year humanities undergrads in need of a bit of mentoring.  There’s an assumption that if such a relationship does exist, it’s based on some kind of informal mutual admiration.

It’s all a bit ‘cringe’, as my daughter would say.

The reality is that there is a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US which is both well-defined and formal.  The truth is that, since the Second World War, by formal agreement, secret  intelligence collected by US and UK agencies has been shared to an extent that many would find surprising.  In fact, it isn’t too far fetched to claim that the NSA and GCHQ, for example, effectively operate as two branches of the same organisation.

So what?  Well, it means that to a large extent, US and UK policy is informed by the same basic intelligence information.  Interpretations of what this shared intelligence means can and do differ, but there is always that background awareness and mutual understanding between the two governments.

So yes, British blather about the ‘special relationship’ does get a bit embarrassing and does make us seem more than a little needy, but it is nevertheless a real thing, and it’s a relationship that many of our western allies would give their eye-teeth to be a part of.

Kids today…


Dido, not wearing a home-made shirt

There’s a discussion ongoing on Twitter this morning between @janemerrick23, @VictoriaPeckham and @gabyhinsliff about making one’s own clothes which reminded me of a discussion I had with my 14-year old daughter recently.

Dido is very sensible in all respects but like most kids of her age, or so it seems to me, fashion is quite important in her life and much of the allowance we give her is hoarded and spent on achingly fashionable clobber designed to impress her friends (or at least, persuade them that she isn’t a total klutz).

Anyway, the point is that I was explaining to her how things had changed.  When I was growing up in the 1970s, most of the clothes I had until I was probably about 14 or so were made by my mum.  School uniform as well as vests, pants and socks came from M&S or BHS, but ‘casual’ stuff – trousers, shorts, jeans and jumpers – were generally knocked up on her old Singer or hand knitted by her.

We weren’t poor: my dad was a fairly senior university lecturer and my mum worked as a school secretary, but somehow the idea of actually buying clothes for her children was anathema.  Maybe it was growing up in wartime and post-war austerity?

But the thing was, she wasn’t actually very good at it.  The trousers generally didn’t have pockets or flies, because they were too difficult, and the jumpers usually looked like they had been made-to-measure for Quasimodo.  When they wore out they were patched; and when we grew, they were extended with odd bits of cloth in exciting contrasting colours. My brother and I must have looked like Fagin’s street urchins.

I told Dido this and she flat-out didn’t believe me, but it’s true and my recollection is that it was true of a lot of my contemporaries as well.  My ‘allowance’ as a teenager peaked at £5 a month, when I was 15, and after that I had to find evening and Saturday jobs which finally allowed me to buy my own jeans (cheap ‘grey import’ Levi’s from Dickie Dirt’s in Fulham), t-shirts and other basic stuff.

Anyway, the idea of wearing home-made clothes was treated by Dido with absolute derision and threats that she would call Childline if we ever tried it on with her and that was that.  Kids today eh?  They don’t know they’re born.