lrdg imageEdwin Weaver was probably born in 1908; we can’t be sure as it is suspected he falsified his age to enlist in the Royal Artillery in Birmingham in 1925. He volunteered for the SAS in 1943 and, after evacuating escaped POWs along the Italian coast for many months he parachuted into eastern France in August 1944 on Operation LOYTON. He was captured, along with the rest of his SAS patrol, on October 7th of that year.

On October 15th he and seven comrades were driven to a spot in a forest just to the west of the hamlet of La Grande Fosse. The first off the truck was Reg Church. He was stripped naked and made to stand in front of a ready dug grave. SS Unterscharführer Georg Zahringer told the subsequent war crimes tribunal at the British Military Court at Wuppertal, Germany, in May 1946 what happened next.

Wuttke was carrying a Walther pistol and Gaede also had a weapon with him. Practically                      immediately I heard a shot. The remaining English prisoners in the truck did not say anything but remained silent. The next prisoner was made to jump down and undress like the other and was taken away to the same place. Again I heard a shot. This went from one prisoner to another until it was the turn of the last.

The last man out of the truck was Edwin Weaver. Georg Zahringer told how he watched as Weaver was led to the edge of the grave. He was not trembling. He then turned to one of the Germans and said something, before he was shot through the back of the head by Wuttke. Weaver’s was the last body to be exhumed from the grave and was found draped over his friends.

As the Germans drove away from the crime scene Zahringer described a solemn atmosphere in the truck. He asked Schossig, the man Weaver had spoken to and the only one who could speak English, what he had said. Schossig replied, ‘We were good men’.

SAS_ROH_BoxsetThis story and 373 others have just been commemorated in a three-volume work; The SAS and LRDG Roll of Honour 1941-1947. It is the culmination of one man’s work to explain the deaths of all the SAS and Long Range Desert Group (LRDG – the forerunner of the SAS) fatalities of the Second World War. (The last man died in 1947 having never left military hospital, but as the SAS was disbanded in 1945 he was never officially listed as being a casualty of the regiment.)

The project was carried out by an anonymous author, and friend of mine, who calls himself ex-Lance Corporal X for anonymity. It cost him £58,000 of his own money. He was driven to start what turned out to be a 13-year quest after being asked to leave wreaths in Algeria for SAS men killed there in 1944. Trouble was, the fighting had finished at least a year before. So what were they doing there?

Dunno, said the SAS Association. Odd, thought ex-LCpl X, I’d better find out. It became a passion and consumed all the spare time his very understanding family had. He contacted all the next of kin and trawled the national archives and regimental histories. Slowly, over many years of correspondence and interviews, the families came to trust him and believe in the integrity and dignity he promised to bring to the project and the memories of their loved ones.

He travelled the world (including to New Zealand to speak to the family of Francis ‘Frankie’ Rhodes, a member of the North Auckland Mounted Rifles and later the LRDG, killed in an accident whilst on leave in November 1943) and insisted on adding colour and depth to the men’s stories, rather than just recounting the ‘who’ and ‘when’ of the casualties.

The locations for many of the deaths have hitherto not been recorded, or have been done so inaccurately. Ex-LCpl X will use any profits from his project to construct fitting and permanent memorials to those that currently have none. Anything left over will go to the military charity Combat Stress.

The author has eschewed a boys-own approach; bullets don’t fly like angry wasps and not even the biggest guns spit hot death. The material is harrowing stuff. Hitler’s Kommandobefehl, or Commando Order, of October 1942 formed the illegitimate justification for the murder of Allied troops captured behind German lines. Having been wounded in action, John Reginald “Reggie’ Williams, Sam Pascoe and Joe Ogg were taken from the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Poitiers, France, and murdered, most likely by lethal injection, by Hauptmann Dr Georg Hesterberg. The bodies were disposed of secretly.

SAS_ROH SPREAD_1I have been very happy to help ex-LCpl X promote the project. The Telegraph reported the launch of the work and followed it up with another article. The story has also been across the UK commercial radio network. It is an incredible achievement and will be of immense value to historians and future researchers as it is the first time anyone has pulled together all the records and included the next of kin. 13 hitherto unrecognised members of the SAS and LRDG were discovered in the course of the author’s research. I commend the work to you; it is £60 very well spent. More information can be found at the project’s website (www.sas-lrdg-roh.com) or on twitter @SAS_LRDG_ROH.

Edwin Weaver’s grave (with no inscription) lies in the Durnbach war cemetery, 15km east of Bad Tolz, in Germany. He is also commemorated on the war memorial at St James church, Shirley, Solihull and on the Stele de Prayé memorial above Moussey in France.



tweet image25 years ago today Gerald Ratner, Chairman and Chief Executive of his family jewellery firm, made his now infamous speech in the Albert Hall in London. Speaking at a conference of the Institute of Directors to a group of 5000 business leaders, he mused on the reasons for his impressive record. As he had taken over the company in 1984 and grown it from 150 stores to over 2000 with annual sales of £1.2 billion, he had a captive audience, eager to hear the secret of his success. “We do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95,” he told the audience. “People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap. ”

Cue a meltdown in the share price, not helped by his further asserting that earrings in his stores were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich, but probably wouldn’t last as long”.
£500 million was wiped off the value of the company and within 18 months Ratner was out of a job. Worse was to come. “I spent seven years lying on the bed watching Countdown” he later admitted. Surely a lesson for entrepreneurs everywhere of the hellish consequences of such hubris.

In the quarter of a century that has passed since Ratner’s speech there have been many examples of otherwise stable and functioning businesses getting it so so wrong when it came to, arguably, their most important asset: their reputation. Take BP’s handling of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig disaster. An explosion on 20 April 2010 killed 11 people, sank the rig and pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The US government reckons the total spill was 4.9 million barrels of oil. BP estimates its total spill-related expenses at $37 billion.

At the height of the crisis response, BP’s Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, said “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back“. After 11 deaths, such a crass comment seemed to exemplify BP’s mishandling of the crisis and general incompetence. The company nearly went bust.

Who advises these people? Or, if you’re worth a few million quid and believe your own press, do you start to think you know how to conduct your own reputation management? A head for figures and business models counts for nothing if there is not also an instinctive, antennae-twitching affinity with how fragile a reputation is.

Through the lens of social media that potential downside can be multiplied by a considerable degree. Too many companies think they can outsource their communication or reputation strategy. In February this year, as I’m sure you’ll remember, Kanye West released his new album and went online to rate it, ahem, ’30 out of 10′. In response, the official Twitter feed of Virgin Australia tweeted ‘@kanyewest EAD you douche’. Without translating the niceties of the message, take it from me this did not equate to ‘ Dear Mr West, bravo on the new album and we heartily agree with your objective assessment’.

It was taken down after 60 seconds, but the damage was done. Virgin Australia had to apologise, backtrack at some pace and try to repair a tarnished reputation. What’s worse: that Virgin Australia entrusted (or sub-contracted) their voice to an individual who thinks language like that is acceptable, or that the senior leadership of the company cared so little for their output they delegated or outsourced the task in the first place ?

After a crisis a company needs to be communicating (and Twitter will be inked into the team sheet for this task) immediately: minute five, minute 10, minute 30, and so on. There isn’t time to contact the CEO for cleared copy or lines-to-take. The individual empowered to press send on the tweet or chair a press conference needs to be in the mind of the Board and sufficiently grounded not to derail a response before its even up and running.

The Ratner Effect, as it became known, nearly destroyed the jewellery company. The same thing happened to BP. It will keep happening as long as Board members think PR-spin or a bluff, head-in-the-sand approach are effective reputation strategies. Happy anniversary Gerald.


Reasons to be cheerful…1..2..3

20150319-pig_photoToday is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, although you might not have realised it, given recent headlines. So I thought I’d inject a ray of sunshine by sharing three things that I see in the world today that give me reason to think it may not be all doom and gloom.

The first bit of good news comes from Cuba.  The rapprochement between the United States and the communist country may not be complete, but is far removed from the mistrust and antagonism characterising much of the 54-year diplomatic spat.  Fidel Castro may dislike the warming in relations overseen by younger brother and current President Raul, but, as Al-Jazeera notes, with scheduled flights due to commence and a reopening of the US embassy in Havana on the cards, the direction of travel is clear.

Certainly, Cuba will claim as victories their removal from the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and, simply, their survival in the teeth of prolonged American opposition. Raul Castro has to take a hard line in order to maintain the support of the Communist Party and his influential, if officially powerless, brother. But the transformation of Cuba cannot be done without a better relationship with America; hence the quiet adoption of economic reforms.

Some see this as yet another triumph for capitalism. Writer and satirist P J O’Rourke said: “You can’t get good chinese takeout in China and cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. That’s all you need to know about communism.” (However, he also admitted to denting the embargo on Cuban goods in the US by having his cigars sent to Canada, repackaged and delivered to him in boxes marked ‘made in Canada’. His defence? “And they are. The boxes ARE made in Canada!”.) But I think the likelihood of a peaceful and respectful conclusion to the last great (original) Cold War stand-off is welcome news.

The second good news story is Israel.  Stick with me on this one.  In this New York Times article, Thomas Friedman, commenting on the Likud party’s victory in this week’s general election, lamented “a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu deployed in this campaign”. And by turning his back on a two-state solution Mr Netanyahu has chosen to “tear up the basic tramlines on which a peace deal is likely to occur” according to Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister. So, an unusual source of rosy-glowness, I agree.

But by taking a position so obviously opposed to established US policy, Mr Netanyahu has provided diplomatic space for US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to negotiate a deal over Iran’s nuclear ambitions (talks are due to conclude on March 31st).  Mr Netanyahu insists that development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities (which they claim is for energy) should be thwarted at every stage. In a speech to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3rd he expressed fears that any concession would leave Iranian nuclear infrastructure intact, thereby enabling “a short break-out time to the bomb”. Others, such as in this article from 2011 in Foreign Affairs, suggest a nuclear-armed Iran would encourage wider proliferation: in such a volatile atmosphere Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and many other Gulf states may conclude their interests are best served by developing their own weapons. It is to head off such nuclear competition and overcome the current tension-filled impasse with Iran that a deal is sought.

Doing nothing is not an option, but for too long the US has had to act with great regard for the relationship with Israel. But the prospect of a sensible and workable compromise has receded as a result of Mr Netanyahu’s insistence on a zero-sum approach to the negotiations. Counterintuitively, he has made wider regional nuclear proliferation more likely. But his prickly attitude to the US and his recent comments running up to Israel’s general election have meant the negotiating space (i.e. diplomatic options available to the US) impacting that relationship has just been widened. As Mr Kerry has less reason to worry about a disgruntled Mr Netanyahu, a more acceptable nuclear deal is increasingly likely.

And the final piece of good news is that Ben Ottewell is on tour this year, playing the South by South West festival in Texas last night, Toronto next week and the UK in April.  Don’t worry, listen to this and be happy; we can all get back to being gloomy tomorrow. That’ll please us Brits.

Spies like us

20150310-Spy_picThere were many interesting details in the report released by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on March 5th. Titled Women in the UK Intelligence Community and coinciding with International Women’s Day, it explored issues of diversity in Britain’s three intelligence agencies: SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 and focussed on overseas spying), MI5 (the domestic agency) and GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters; the cyber snoops. But the primary focus for the report, as the name suggests, is how to attract, promote and retain women.

Much of the attention given to the report, written by Labour MP Hazel Blears, centred on the suggestion that Mumsnet, a parents’ support website, be used as a forum for advertising recruitment opportunities. The Mumsnetters had great fun with this, see here.  But as a bid for diversity the Daily Mail was unimpressed, commenting: ‘Er, is she sure about that? Is Mumsnet not even more insufferably middle-class than Oxbridge these days?’.

Unfortunately, many of the more interesting details were overlooked by the media.  For example, the report states that women made up 36% of applicants and 44% of actual recruits to SIS last year.  I read two things from these statistics: first, proportionally more women passed the SIS selection process than men. Second, given the ideal gender split would, presumably, be 50/50, a 44% recruitment rate equates to 88% of the target figure.  As a frequent user of national rail services, I’d be whooping for joy if every train I took achieved something similar.

One of the biggest criticisms of all three agencies was described as the ‘permafrost of middle management’. The report observed: ‘while the top and bottom of the organisation understand and are committed to diversity, there is a tier at middle management level…that seems to have a very traditional male mentality and outlook’. (Although even this attracted the Daily Mail’s ungracious observation: “Of course! Top jobs always go to greasers and yea-sayers who can sniff the political wind”.)

The intelligence agencies are not the only government departments experiencing permafrost; the British army suffers likewise. Gender equality issues are a regular feature reported to the Chief of the General Staff’s Briefing Team, a rolling outreach programme offering a shortcut to the head of the organisation for the most serious or widespread gripes.  Partly as a response, in 2011 the Army Women’s Network (AWN) was created, immediately attracting some boringly predictable responses questioning the need for such a group in the online discussion forum of ARRSE, the (unofficial) army rumour service website. The AWN will be re-launched this summer.

There are clear differences in culture and role between the intelligence agencies and the army. But can these account for, let alone explain comments (on ARRSE) such as “I hear the first 50 to sign up [to the AWN] will be entered into a draw to win a pony. The runners up will receive some nice flowers and knitting patterns”? Is the military less likely to see as a concern issues traditionally thought of as concerning women only, such as childcare and glass ceilings, because it calls for selfless commitment and is built for extreme violence?

Responsibility for childcare is seen in the report (and anecdotally in the army) as the primary reason for a lack of women in senior leadership positions. (Although it is interesting to note that whereas 23% of FTSE 100 Board Members are women, the figure for Britain’s intelligence agencies’ Board members is 35%.) But is the continuation of the argument that childcare concerns in the workplace are holding women back itself an outdated concept?  Is not childcare a shared endeavour (in most cases) between two people, with the predominant model being a man and a woman? So why is the argument not put forward that men are equally vulnerable to career-damage because of childcare responsibilities?

The ‘Glass-Ceiling Index‘ published this week in The Economist, combining data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights and representation in senior jobs, suggests the Nordic countries are the best places to be a working woman, although data from intelligence agencies were not included. Britain came 22nd.

Obituary for the Devil

the-devil-throughout-history-photos-3-horned_pig_devil“God is an absentee landlord,” shouted the devil, “I’m here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began!” He always sought to tempt from a position of mischief. But even speaking through Al Pacino man still rejected him. The Gospel according to John called him ‘a murderer from the beginning.’ So when the General Synod of the Church of England replaced references to him with the anodyne ‘evil’ on July 13th 2014, the game was up.

He had been expected to go out every day and deliver the pain for God. As the CEO of hell, Rowan Atkinson had him organising those newly arrived in purgatory into murderers, looters, lawyers and the French (and with no access to toilets: damnation without relief). Always he was looked to as the administrator of the worst of humanity and was hated for it. Why? It’s just the job he got stuck with, Kent Anderson observed.

He led the evil empire long before Ronald Reagan had heard the term. And he became more than simply Old Nick. He became an idea. Invoked to express human opposition and to characterise human enemies, Elaine Pagels saw him as the interpretation of human conflict and a standing puzzle in the history of religion. But was this too much responsibility, even for a fallen angel? Is not the inconvenient truth that man needed the devil, to explain the worst in himself and eschew responsibility?

God wrote to man: “You invented terms like ‘just wars’ and ‘friendly fire.’ And it was you that didn’t know when to stop digging deeper and when to stop building higher.” But man had stopped listening. He preferred to blame the father of lies; Dante’s ill worm that pierces the world’s core. It hadn’t always been this way. For much of his early career the devil was the servant of God. He was necessary. He tested the fortitude of Job. The Hebrew bible and the only story in the New Testament in which the devil got a look in – the Temptation of Christ – contained the sense of a dilemma: if God is omnipotent, where does evil come from? Neither Christianity nor Judaism has ever supplied an adequate answer.

The second and third centuries AD were the heyday for apocryphal stories about the devil. The Manichean heresy, built on pagan and Christian gnostic beliefs, argued for the existence of good and evil forces. The two are in permanent conflict, with the human world of flesh and sexuality entirely governed by the force for evil. But the heresy said that trapped within man is a spiritual element which means he belongs also to another world of truth. The purpose of human existence then, was to escape from the dark to the light. Augustine started as a Manichean but then rejected the doctrine. In orthodox Christianity he rejected the Manichean ideas, limiting the role of the devil and claiming evil is simply the absence of good.

The devil fought for his place in the human soul. The Black Death led to an existential crisis for Christianity. If priest and pauper alike were dying, what could be said for the omnipotence of the church? Perhaps there was another force, as powerful or perhaps more powerful than God. In Robert Frost’s opinion, we dance around in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows. Was the secret God or another? But it was the Reformation that saw the devil really up his game. The idea took root that the devil was out to destroy God. This was a radical departure from the somewhat benign temptations he had placed in front of Christ. Appealing for a demonstration of supernatural powers was an attempt to draw Christ away from being who he was. Violence and torture had not entered the script. But it suited the late medieval church to promote the devil and his alliance with humans through the cult of witchcraft as a way of explaining its own internal crises. The church split. The opposite was demonised. Man separated from God.

Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in 1667, was another boost. Matthew 7 had set the scene. Describing evil as coming from a person, rather than going in, it suggested the evil the Lord’s Prayer protected man from was that which he was capable of, not that may assail him from outside. The description of man as an individual, separate from God and responsible for his own actions built on this doubt. But a psychological journey into the soul of modern Europe appealed to the Enlightenment and just as Eve had been tempted by the devil in the garden of Eden when she was on her own, separated from Adam, so the devil saw his chance again. The whispers were listened to: the church can no longer protect you; you are on your own.

It helped that intellectuals were slow to deny the existence of devils and witches. Intricately linked to other spiritual beings such as angels and, indeed, God, to deny the existence of one was to deny the existence of the other. Better then not to deny. D H Lawrence opined that devils belong to man, he must accept them and be at peace with them. But if, as Philip Almond says, the devil objectifies the often incomprehensible evil that lies within us and around us, are not God and the devil mutually exclusive? If the church now teaches that the devil was only symbolic, cannot the same be said for God? The devil would love that idea. It may be a pyhrric victory but by denying the existence of the devil, perhaps man has also killed God. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that…he was gone.

The picture above is a detail from a 16th-century painting by Jacob de Backer in the National Museum in Warsaw.