Fury as Hoon axes famous regiments

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Indy Politics

The Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed the axing of four infantry battalions today in a major restructuring of the Army.

The Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed the axing of four infantry battalions today in a major restructuring of the Army.

The widely-trailed move prompted angry scenes in the House of Commons with Scottish National Party MP Annabelle Ewing ordered out of the chamber by the Speaker after calling Mr Hoon a "backstabbing coward".

She was angered by Mr Hoon's confirmation that two single battalion regiments in Scotland - the Royal Scots and The King's Own Scottish Borderers - would merge into a single battalion and would combine with the other four Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, to form the new Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Ms Ewing's Perth constituency is the home of the Black Watch, whose troops have just returned from perilous mission to Iraq.

In England, the King's Own Royal Border Regiment, the King's Regiment and the Queen's Lancashire Regiment will amalgamate to form two new battalions within the new King's and Lancashire Border Regiment.

One battalion will also go from the Prince of Wales's Division in the south of England through a merger of elements of the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which will then merge with the Light Infantry, while the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment will merge with the the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

The Parachute Regiment will also lose a battalion.

The "highly trained manpower" released by the move will form the core of a new "ranger" unit which will be trained and equipped to provide direct support for the Special Forces.

Mr Hoon said: "These plans will make the Army more robust and resilient, able to deploy, support and sustain the enduring expeditionary operations that are essential for a more complex and uncertain world.

"The move to larger, multi-battalion regiments that these changes bring about is the only sustainable way in which to structure the infantry for the long term."

Mr Hoon said the remainder of the infantry would be reorganised into large, multi-battalion regiments.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales will combine to become the Welsh Regiment, in which they will be known as the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh (The Royal Welch Fusiliers) and the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh (The Royal Regiment of Wales).

The Staffordshire Regiment, Cheshire Regiment and Worcester and Sherwood Foresters will combine as the Mercian Regiment, and will be known as 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment (Cheshires), 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) and 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment (Staffords).

And the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, The Prince of Wales' Own Regiment and The Green Howards will come together to form The Yorkshire Regiment and be known as 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own), 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) and the 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's).

As part of the wider rebalancing of the mix of light, medium and heavy forces, 19 Mechanised Brigade will begin re-rolling to form the new light brigade from next month.

It will be ready to be deployed, if required, in 2006 when it will serve as the contingent Nato response force.

The 4 Armoured Brigade will begin to convert to a mechanised brigade in 2006 while other brigades will adopt new structures around the same time.

The manpower freed up by the reduction in battalions will be reallocated to key specialisms such as communications, engineers, logisticians and intelligence experts, where there are current shortages.

The head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, said the changes were needed to meet future challenges.

"While the Army cherishes tradition, it cannot base future capability on tradition alone," he said.

"It has a proud history of embracing necessary change. Now is one such time. That is why the British Army is and will remain amongst the best in the world."

However, the plans were condemned by shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram, who said they were driven by the Government's need to cut costs.

"It is a dark day for our armed forces. And an even darker day for the proud regiments it seeks to scrap. It is also a day of shame for this discredited and ineffective Defence Secretary," he said.

"The Secretary of State says that this is all about reorganisation. But this statement is not driven by a need to reorganise. It is driven by the Chancellor's demand for financial cuts.

"Our armed forces deserve better than to be betrayed in this appalling manner by their Government."

Scotland's sole Tory MP Peter Duncan accused Mr Hoon of letting the Army take the flak for what was a "political decision".

He added: "To fail to admit this is an act of mammoth political cowardice on behalf of Mr Hoon and Tony Blair.

"If the Blair government thinks this is the end of this issue they could scarcely be more wrong," he said.

"The fight to save Scotland's regiments is not over - it is just getting started.

"This act of lunacy must be reversed, and it will be reversed by the Conservatives."

Mr Duncan said "within a week" of a Conservative victory at the next General Election, the six single-battalion infantry regiments would be reinstated.