Hew and Will Pike: Fighting talk

They served the Army with distinction, as their family has for a century. Now this father and son launch a rare attack on the 'farcical' way the military is led. Cole Moreton meets... Hew and Will Pike

Sunday 09 November 2008 01:00

The Pikes are so angry that they're about to break ranks. This goes against a century of breeding for two soldiers whose relatives fought in South Africa, on the Western Front, at Dunkirk, in Korea and the South Atlantic. Hew Pike played a leading part in the recapture of the Falkland Islands. His son Will took part in some of the fiercest fighting of modern times, against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both are proud military officers, trained to follow orders and expect the same of their soldiers. So one can only imagine the anger and frustration that lead them, under portraits of their forebears at Hew's house, to quietly, efficiently put a bomb under the people who tell the Army what to do.

Not the generals, but their political masters – the "irresponsible" decision-makers who send units "half-cocked" into dangerous places without the necessary equipment, training, helicopters, vehicles and other kinds of support. Worse, troops are left isolated because the command structure is "farcical", says Will Pike, who quit the Army as a major last year.

"The command and control were wrong, in a collective sense," he says of his experience as a company commander in Afghanistan. "Rival agendas" were being pursued by the military, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, "none of which was in charge. The only one of those that was resourced at all was the military... and the resourcing was pathetic".

There was not enough air cover. Only two Chinook helicopters were available at any one time. "You can't move a whole rifle company on two Chinooks, so your ability to go anywhere in force is limited." The Snatch Land Rover was "an absolute disgrace" (as an SAS commander said when he quit in protest last week). They had not all been properly trained on their field radios. "That led to problems talking to one another." Confusion spreads from Whitehall downwards, says Will, who wrote in his diary in Afghanistan in 2006: "No real thought is going into what we are doing and why."

Conditions may have improved for the troops, but the systemic failure has yet to be addressed. "It is still the same," he says. "Who is in charge of the campaign in Afghanistan? Is it the Secretary of State for Defence? Is it the Foreign Secretary? Is it the Minister for International Development?"

Major Pike was leading A Company of the third battalion of the Parachute Regiment (3 Para) in Helmand, the place his men came to call Hell-land. They were supposed to prepare the way for civil teams to begin rebuilding work, restoring power, clean water and communications and winning over the Afghan people, but there was not enough money or people for that to happen. Instead they were caught in a battle for survival in Sangin. "If we cannot resource properly, we shouldn't be doing this," his diaries of the time say. "After all, this is a war of choice." In his kitbag were history books describing what his great-great-great-uncle faced in the same landscape, against ancestors of the same enemy, in 1878. "We seem to ignore all the lessons of the past."

Will later tried to "bring some reality" to the Ministry of Defence by joining its Afghanistan team in London, but left after a few months. He has retained ties with the Army, so is the situation still as bad? "I would hope not. I think it's probably better in country, but whether it's better in Whitehall ... I suspect not."

His father listens in silence, then gives his own damning verdict. Lieutenant General Sir Hew Pike has clout. Leading the attack on Mount Longdon made him a hero of the Falklands campaign, although he dislikes the word. He knows very well that soldiers have always complained: he has just published a book of diaries and letters written by relatives who served in the Army all the way back to South Africa in 1900, and the same themes are repeated time and again: the pain of parting from loved ones, the strength of comradeship, the need for better kit. But things are not the same now, he insists. Modern wars have "a moral and political ambivalence that makes the job of the soldier even more difficult, but no less dangerous".

They're not always sure why they're doing it, in other words. But that's the one question everyone asks on Remembrance Sunday, as they remember the fallen. What did they die for? What was Britain trying to achieve when Rifleman Yubraj Rai was shot last Tuesday? Something new, is one answer. Working with charities and governments to win hearts and minds and support the restoration of society and order in Afghanistan. In theory. The trouble is that huge ambition is not backed up with money, resources or co-operation. "The political eyes," says General Sir Hew precisely, "are bigger than the military stomach."

Over his shoulder is a portrait of his father, Willie Pike, who fought in Korea, Tunisia and at Dunkirk. His uncle Hew was killed in North Africa in 1942; great-uncle Frank died at the Battle of Passchendaele, during the Great War that ended 90 years ago on Tuesday. Both father and son wear poppies as they sit together in the 17th-century house in Hampshire where Hew was born. The 65-year-old wears the countryman's outfit of mustard cords, checked shirt and a blue sweater; his 38-year-old son looks like the investment manager he has recently become, in sharp grey suit trousers and a crisp white, double-cuffed shirt.

Will proposes a new unit of doctors, engineers, vets and others who would be prepared to go into towns with soldiers under combat conditions and start work straight away. But NGOs don't like being seen with the soldiers, and they too are thinly spread. So the Army becomes isolated. "We go into these things half cocked, relying on the military to deliver it all," he says. "That is never going to work. The military is [meant to be] an enabling aspect, for the success-winning elements: the restructuring of ministries and the development side which brings a better tomorrow for the people. If that's not being set out properly at the top, you've got no hope of delivering at the bottom."

It is extremely rare for an officer with such intense recent experience of battle to criticise the command in this way. "If the UK wants to play on this stage, across the world, then the will has to be backed by the resources. Otherwise it's a bit of a con. Wanting the kudos but not investing enough to justify that."

The Paras had three rifle companies of 120 people each in a province the size of England, he says. "Imagine England, then remove all the roads, the power supply, the communications, all the structure of government, and there's no money but there's corruption and drugs. Then try to police that with 360 people. It's ridiculous, isn't it?"

Will always wanted to be a soldier, despite his father attempting to put him off. "I tried to persuade him to think about other things," says Sir Hew. "His reaction as a small boy was to say, 'Oh, those are boring'." Will was 12 when his father sailed with the Falklands task force in 1982. Married to Jean, the daughter of a colonel, Hew also left behind two other children. He was in charge of 3 Para, and remembers the night on a hillside that he was told his equivalent in 2 Para, Colonel H Jones, had been killed. "I was told later that I had been visibly shaken, and I am not surprised." Grief had to wait, though. "The shambles of the battlefield was beyond all imagination," he says in the new family book, From the Front Line (Pen and Sword). "Corpses starting to give off that sickly sweet distinctive odour of death, clothing, bloody shell dressings, discarded boots, belts of ammunition, ration boxes, field cookers and life's detritus spread all over the hillside." Twenty-three of his men were killed. Hew Pike retired from the Army after 40 years, and was not surprised when his son joined the Parachute Regiment.

Will's diaries from Helmand in 2006 describe being left in the wrong place by a Chinook. "There was a dawning realisation that I had been dropped in the shit... I was completely alone and somewhere very close to Taliban villages beside the Helmand river." His radio was out of range but he kept sending distress signals anyway. "I think I used the words 'oh fuck' repeatedly and I started to run." Villagers spotted him, so he hid among the reeds. "I thought I was a dead man." He was rescued. "I would have fired every last round and thrown every grenade... but would I leave a round for myself, and would I have been able to do it?" And what then? "It is more the manner of one's death that frightens, and the aftermath – perhaps strung up in the bazaar."

Both Pikes speak in that peculiarly flat way that soldiers have when they have seen terrible things. "Combat," says Will, "is not pleasant." Asked why anyone would want to join up, they speak of the excitement, the thrill of accomplishing something you have trained hard to do, and the strong bonds of comradeship. So how would Will feel if one of his three daughters wanted to follow the family tradition? "If they chose to, I wouldn't object," he says, visibly taken aback by the idea that they might join the "girls" – as he calls female soldiers. "If I had a son, then probably, yeah."

The Pikes remain intensely proud of their regiment and the Army, but if their descendants are going to serve the nation, they want the Military Covenant to be repaired. Proper support for troops means "the right air power, the right electronic communications, the right medical care and importantly a civil corps that gets on with development straight away", Sir Hew says. "That would give you the package to go to a place like Congo." And if the package is not right, what then? "Contain the ambition," he says, expressing the deal as his family has seen it for generations. "If we want to put the lives of soldiers at risk, then let's resource them properly." Otherwise? "Don't do it at all."

A family at war

Captain Sydney Pike (Hew's paternal grandfather), Royal Artillery, South Africa 1900

Major General Reggie Tompson (maternal grandfather) Royal Artillery, Western Front 1914-1916

Major Frank Thicknesse (great-uncle) Royal Artillery, died at battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Lieutenant General Willie Pike (father) Royal Artillery, France 1940, North Africa 1943, Korea 1951

Lieutenant Hew Tompson (uncle) Royal Artillery, died in North Africa 1942

Lieutenant General Sir Hew Pike, Parachute Regiment, Falkland Islands 1982

Major Will Pike (son) Parachute Regiment, Afghanistan 2006

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