Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 20 May 2023. © Richard Kemp
Today is Armed Forces Day in the United States, an opportunity for Americans to show appreciation for their fighting men and women. Any British reader who wonders what that’s got to do with us need only pay a visit to the US military cemetery at Madingley. There they will see row upon row of identical white crosses stretching over 30 acres of Cambridgeshire countryside, each marking the final resting place of an American soldier, sailor or airman killed fighting alongside their British comrades in the Second World War.
The British-American special relationship might occasionally fray at the edges, but never when it comes to the armed forces. We have fought side by side on battlefields around the world, starting with the Second Opium War in 1859 when, against his orders, a US Navy commodore gave covering fire to hard pressed British troops with the words: ‘blood is thicker than water’.
During the Second World War the bond between British and American commanders was so strong that they organized and deployed their forces as if they were the resources of a single nation. As Churchill said at the time: ‘This is a wonderful system. There never has been anything like it between two allies.’
In 1982, secret guarantees of American naval support as well as vital military intelligence were essential in enabling British forces to launch their invasion and successfully recapture the Falkland Islands.
When I and my comrades in the British 7th Armoured Brigade were rushed to Saudi Arabia in 1991 to help liberate Kuwait, we were initially dependent on life support from the US Marine Corps, who with characteristic generosity of spirit prioritised our troops even above their own.
When things go wrong, as they all too often do in war, then we see the true strength of our military friendship. After a US Air Force F-15 dropped a bomb that killed three of our soldiers in a tragic blue-on-blue in Afghanistan in 2007, the British company commander told the distraught American squadron commander:
‘Nobody here blames your aircrew. Whatever happened, my men know how much they owe to your pilots. You have always been there for us, and your planes have saved many of my soldiers’ lives.’
Today, in the face of the worst war in Europe since 1945, Britain and the whole continent depends on the might of the US forces and the willingness of young American men and women to cross the Atlantic and stand on the line in Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland against potential expansion of Putin’s aggression. We don’t yet know the full extent of American military involvement in defending Ukraine but we do know that US support has been crucial in keeping Kyiv’s army in the fight.
Beyond Europe, wherever freedom is threatened, the men and women of the US armed forces often find themselves in the firing line, knowing they might be called on to pay the heaviest price. On Armed Forces Day we can be thankful for their courage and dedication. Without them the world would be a far more dangerous place.