John Nichol - Journalism

John Nichol has written articles for most of the UK national papers including The Times, The Sun and The Observer.

John is a regular Travel Writer for the Mail On Sunday and a selection of his articles can be read by clicking: The Daily Mail

Below is a small selection of other articles written by John Nichol. He is represented by:

Lucas, Alexander and Whitley
Telephone: 020 7421 7900
Email: admin@lawagency.co.uk


Honour the dead but remember the living



Today we remember those who gave their lives in two world wars, but John Nichol says we should also think of those injured in service.

This morning thousands of people, proudly wearing their poppies, will gather in London for the Remembrance Parade. Just before 11am I will pin my poppy next to my medals and proudly march past the Cenotaph to honour those men and women who have given their lives so that I can live as a free man.

The poppy, of course, has become the symbol by which we remember the dead of the two world wars. It comes from the poem which begins: "In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow" written by an Army doctor, John McCrea, as he surveyed the battlefields of Northern France in 1915 after some of the bloodiest fighting of WW1. Flanders lay devastated, all signs of life had been extinguished, yet amidst the dead and the sea of mud a single poppy flowered, bringing life, colour and hope to the battlefield.

So the poppy is also a symbol of life. Remembrance Sunday and the Poppy Appeal are about remembering the living who need our help and care as much as about honouring the dead. And not just those from the two World Wars, since 1945 our military has been involved in over 70 conflicts. From the jungles of Borneo to the deserts of Iraq and now in Kosovo, our armed forces are constantly on active service somewhere around the globe. Only one year has passed this century in which one of our servicemen has not been killed in action.

And for every person killed thousands more have been injured, last year The Royal British Legion spent over £28 million on welfare alone. The 1998 Poppy Appeal raised over £17 million pounds, so where does the money go?

It goes to people like Mike Martin. Mike was a navy diver who is palpably proud of his work. In 1986 he was part of a 5-man team sent to the Gulf to deal with a super-tanker that had been hit by a missile. They found the live warhead lodged in the ship’s engine room and worked for 18 hours to remove it. In true military style the best solution to the problem was the easiest one; they simply tied on a suitably long rope, retired to a safe distance and dragged the warhead out of the hole it had made as it struck the ship.

Several months later in April 1987 the ferry "Herald Of Free Enterprise" capsized off the coast of Belgium, 193 people died. Mike and his colleagues spent many days in the upturned ship as they recovered over 180 bodies from the mud and oil. For their actions "above and beyond the call of duty" all of the divers were awarded commendations. Mike describes the task: "we were sifting through the tangle of tables and chairs to feel for bodies buried in the silt. Each body had to be carefully dug out, tagged, photographed then carried ashore. It sounds strange, but we were treating the dead as though they were still alive, always careful not to bump or drop them. I would look at the children and women and think of my own family back home." Mike talks about the immense sense of pride they all experienced, "to be part of the team entrusted with the task, not training but doing the job for real". Having put my RAF training to use in the Gulf and Bosnia I can fully understand what he means.

But Mike’s euphoria wasn’t to last. Not long after Zeebrugge he was on a NATO exercise in France, his neck was broken in a horrific accident and his military career was shattered along with his spinal column. As the reality of life in a wheelchair hit home Mike bounced from terror to despair, weeping tears of rage at his helplessness and humiliation. He found himself screaming at God asking "why me?" It was years before he began to accept his situation and instead of asking "why me?" he began to realise "why not me?"

The turning point in Mike’s life occurred when a member of The British Ex-Service Wheelchair Sports Association (BEWSA), a branch of the Royal British Legion, contacted him to see if he would like to take part in a wheelchair sports event. Mike jumped at the chance and "had a go at everything". He even took part in a marathon in his normal wheelchair. It took him over 6 hours to complete an event he now manages in less than 90 minutes in a racing chair. In his own words the Legion and BEWSA showed him that his shrunken world did not have to stop at his front door, he began to realise that although he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, that life could still be a full one. Mike, 41, now helps to raise money for the RBL, competes in athletic competitions around the world and helps others with spinal injuries realise their full potential. His philosophy on life now? "You can achieve anything you want with pride, determination and, every now and then, a little bit of help."

And that is what the RBL and Poppy Day is all about; a little bit of help. The Legion can spend just £5 on flowers and a visit to a hospitalised WW2 veteran who has no other family. Or it may give £20,000 to buy a specially adapted car for a young soldier devastated by Motor Neurone disease. Last year 300,000 members of the ex-service community called on the Legion’s help and, with 15 million veterans and their families eligible, demand is not expected to peak until 2010.

Today’s Remembrance Parade is the last of this century. But, sadly, there will always be veterans from wars to come, in places yet unheard of, who will pin a poppy next to their medals, just as I will do today, not only to honour the dead but also to remember the living

Whirlwind Tours

Former RAF Navigator John Nichol was determined to make the most of a recent business trip to New Zealand.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Your company phones and tells you you’re off on another all-expenses paid trip. Call me churlish if you like, but the trouble is that every business trip is the same. Before each one I vow that this time I’m not going to sprawl on my hotel bed, listlessly watching the in-house movie, eating a club sandwich ordered from room service and drinking a beer liberated from the mini-bar. Nor am I going to prop up the hotel bar for hours, nor sit in the restaurant reading a paperback while I eat my dinner.

This time I’m going to know where I am without having to refer to the complimentary stationery in the letter-rack. This time I’m actually going to get out and do something. So much for the theory. A couple of weeks later I invariably return worn out, older, wiser, and several pounds heavier, having seen nothing of the countries I’ve visited apart from the view from my hotel, taxi and aircraft windows.

When my publisher phoned to despatch me on a whirlwind publicity tour of New Zealand, I faced the bathroom mirror and solemnly repeated my catechism: ‘This time I’m really going to get out and do something.’ The only thing that worried me was that I couldn’t meet my gaze as I said it.

I had an early chance to put my good intentions to the test. After a 33-hour marathon via Bangkok and Sydney, I arrived in Auckland at three o’clock on a glorious autumn afternoon. My publishers had been unusually generous with acclimatisation time; my first meeting wasn’t until five. I surveyed the magnificent view from my top floor suite at the Carlton. Fighting the overpowering temptation to obliterate all trace of it by closing the curtains, lying down on the bed and switching on the TV, I changed into my running kit and consulted the concierge.

Ten minutes later I was following the spiralling road through One Tree Hill Domain. Beyond the formal parks and gardens was a broad expanse of woods and grassland, the countryside in the middle of the city. In the middle of a working day, it was full of strolling people, taking time out to enjoy the autumn sunshine. There were strolling players as well, a couple rehearsing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet on the conveniently steep hillside.

I soon had my first taste of the legendary friendliness of New Zealanders. A middle-aged bloke greeted me with a ‘G’day,’ and when he heard my Pommie accent, started jogging alongside me. The fact that he was wearing a Hugo Boss shirt and tie, trousers and brogues, didn’t faze him at all. He kept pace with me for twenty minutes, chatting about his friends in London, then waved goodbye as he turned back towards the city. When I reached the top, I was alone apart from the obelisk and the solitary tree that gives the hill its name, savouring the stunning views of the harbour of the City of Sails.

I ran back to the hotel, making rather quicker progress on the downhill leg and by five o’clock I was showered, changed and wonderfully refreshed, ready for whatever my publishers could throw at me. This turned out to be interviews and more interviews, interspersed with liberal quantities of food and wine. The pattern for the next three days was soon established: dawn to dusk interviews, followed by an evening flight to the next destination. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch passed in a blur, but by some major scheduling error which has probably led to wholesale sackings in the publicity department, I had two hours to spare before the flight home. Surely this time the call of the in-house movie would be too strong, but no! With one mighty bound I was free. Less than fifteen minutes later I was being strapped into a lifejacket and helped into a jet boat on the river Waimakariri or the mighty Waimakariri as the jet boat publicity preferred to put it.

I began to see what they meant as we bulleted up a river the colour of agate, nearly drowning in spray from the torrent we were battling. The boat scraped the sides of steep gorges so narrow that the cliffs seemed to blot out the daylight, and swerved between jagged rocks. A 300-horsepower boat shouldn’t have been much of a thrill to someone used to flying in a Tornado developing 50,000 pounds of thrust. But I can assure you that a trip in a jet boat piloted by someone I swear was called Lothian Trussock, is a lot more scary than flying at low-level at 700 miles per hour.

The publicity brochure had described it as: ‘Scenic, exhilarating, exciting.’ They forgot to mention terrifying. When the boat turned 360 degrees in its own length while travelling flat out through a river gorge, I let out a shout that I like to think was sheer exhilaration, though I’m forced to admit there’s a pretty good chance it was actually sheer naked terror. An hour later, as I settled back in my seat for the BA flight home, I weighed up the trip. I’d done a hundred interviews, flown twenty-five thousand miles in ten days and shifted more Chardonnay than I cared to think about, but for the first time ever I’d seen and experienced something of the country I’d visited and I got back in better shape than when I left. This time I really did get out and do something.
On March the 6th 1991 I was one of 36 relieved yet proud men and women who walked down the steps of a Red Cross DC-9 aircraft and stood on friendly territory for the first time in many weeks. We were the Allied Prisoners Of War captured during Operation Desert Storm, the war to liberate Kuwait from its Iraqi occupiers. Although we were battered, bruised and exhausted we made a pact to meet again in 10 years time to celebrate the things we now valued above all else; life and freedom.

Last month the pact came to fruition and I found myself walking down the steps of a far more convivial British Airways 747 flight to visit the seat of American power, Washington DC. Twenty-nine of my fellow POWs, one of their widows and all of our partners had made the trip to DC from around the globe as far afield as Alaska, Kuwait, Italy and Bosnia. There was one thing on our minds; celebration, we had all agreed to have just one quiet drink. Luckily, the limit on extremely loud drinks was never set.

As a location for a crowd of people dedicated to partying DC was a great choice; bars, restaurants and clubs abound. And for those so interested, females outnumber males by a ratio of five to four. Needless to say, this minor statistic was of little interest to a group of former and serving fighter pilots, as our partners helpfully informed us. Enthusiasm and intent soon gave way to reality and it transpired that partying for the whole of the 7-day visit was likely to be pretty difficult, sightseeing was also going to be the order of the day.

As people who had spent our working lives in the air there was only one place to start, the National Air and Space Museum. Even though this is the world’s second most popular museum entrance is free, as is entrance to almost every attraction in Washington. Its cavernous halls exhibit aeroplanes, spacecraft and rockets and the 23 galleries trace the history of aviation and space exploration through the ages. But there was only one exhibit that our group wanted to see; the 1903 Wright Flyer. This is the actual machine that Orville Wright flew at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina when he became the first man to fly a powered aircraft. He had flown a distance of some 120 feet at a speed of about 6mph yet looking at the construction of spruce and ash covered with muslin it seemed almost unbelievable that it had ever left the ground. But it was Orville and his brother Wilbur who had begun a process that created the machines we would fly to war at speeds in excess of 700mph. Sadly our sense of a place in history was lost on most of our partners, in the midst of our recollections a voice piped up, "this is truly smashing darling, can we go and see something more interesting".

Much of the tourist trail in Washington has links with the military, Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Navy Museum to name but a few. And I soon found that Americans love their Armed Forces, something not really evident in Britain. The first thing you notice when you travel around is the thousands of people wearing military uniform. In restaurants, on the underground, and in hotels Army, Navy and Air Force personnel go about their day to day business proudly wearing their country’s uniform, a sight you would never see in the UK. The phrase "military discount?" is one that you regularly hear, whether buying a plane ticket or a pair of trainers military personnel will normally receive a discount of between 10 and 30%, merely for serving their country.

This dedication to the military is no more evident than at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Close to the Reflecting Pool in the West Potomac Park made famous in the film, "Forrest Gump", it was designed by a 21-year-old student, Maya Lin, who won the commission in a national competition. When it was first dedicated in 1982 the nation’s wounds from Vietnam were still raw and it was highly controversial. Many Americans didn’t want a memorial at all, others thought its unique design didn’t do justice to the sacrifice of the dead and missing. Since then attitudes have changed and it is now the most visited monument in DC. In 1984 opponents of the design insisted that the more traditional "Three Fighting Men" sculpture be added nearby. The life-sized bronze statue of three battle weary soldiers, fatigue etched in their faces, certainly brought back memories of war for me but I was far more touched by the original memorial with its myriad names carved into the surface. The two polished walls of Indian granite meet in a 10-foot arrowhead and, at a slow stroll, it takes about three minutes to walk past the names of 58,209 servicemen and women, average age nineteen, listed as killed or missing in action in a land thousands of miles from home. Letters, poems and flowers left by the loved ones who remain litter the base of the memorial. There were 46 British servicemen killed during the Gulf War, a tragic loss by any standard, but standing in the shadow of 58,209 men and women brought the realities of conflict crashing home.

A short walk across the park to the south of The Reflecting Pool brought us to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. A troop of nineteen, heavily cloaked, stainless steel soldiers are shown, mid-stride, stalking an unseen enemy on a night patrol. On a bright spring morning the statues were life-like but in the dark of the night each one is individually lit and the effect is positively eerie as the haunted, anxious faces glare out from the artificial light. The soldiers flank a black granite wall bearing the inscription "Freedom Is Not Free", as our own small group of men and women who had once given their freedom stood silently by, it seemed a rather apt message to be reading.

Our final stop on the tourist trail was at Arlington National Ceremony where over 245,000 servicemen and their families are buried in a sombre counterpoint to the soaring monuments across the Potomac river. The granite and marble gravestones reflect the tides of American History from the Civil War to the present day; about twenty burials are still conducted every weekday. Our group split up as we each went in search of colleagues we had known, you don’t serve long in the Armed Forces before someone you know meets their maker. Row upon row of memorials reach out over 612 acres of Virginia countryside and it is a curiously quiet place, especially when another funeral ceremony begins. We waited as an honour guard accompanied a coffin draped with the Stars and Stripes, a drum beat sounded the slow march as the procession moved to a freshly dug grave. An immaculately uniformed squad fired three volleys over the remains before the coffin was lowered to the bugler’s call of "The Last Post". Finally the flag was folded and presented to the next of kin. As we returned to our hotel to continue our reunion celebrations there was no sense of embarrassment at having intruded into private grief, just a stark reminder of how lucky we all were to still be around, able to enjoy the tourist trail.

The Express On Sunday Magazine

ST LUCIA - THE LAST PARADISE ISLAND

"The roads are tracks - no left, no right, just everyone vying for the center.

I stumbled across St Lucia by accident whilst trying to book a last minute all-inclusive holiday to another Caribbean island. A computer error resulted in the booking being made for Sandals St Lucia and, always relying on luck, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a go. As I stepped from the aircraft I knew that fate had served me well, the friendliness was palpable, no surly customs inspectors or grumpy baggage handlers here. Everyone was smiling and the greetings flowed as though I was a long lost family member being welcomed back into the fold.

"Paradise island" must be the most over-used phrase in today’s travel brochures, but in St Lucia's case it really is true. From the shimmering green of the lush tropical rain forests to the impossible blueness of its waters St Lucia remains a relatively unspoilt and thankfully under-developed haven. The largest of the English-speaking Windward Islands, St Lucia’s history is one of conflict and struggle between France and England. Having changed hands 14 times in two centuries it finally gained independence in 1979. Despite this battle for power the Island exudes an ambience of serenity and relaxation whilst still retaining the elsewhere-vanishing vestiges of West Indian culture - the perfect tropical escape.

That the Island is under-developed became apparent on the journey from Hewanorra airport in the South to the resorts on the north-west coast. The roads are little more than pot-holed country tracks where there seems to be no left or right; just a middle with everyone vying for position regardless of their direction of travel. The taxi drivers, some of the most knowledgeable and polite in the Caribbean, have the disconcerting habit of turning around to chat to their passengers at what seems like the most crucial moments during the journey. They insist on describing each landmark as it comes into view, especially the famous Pitons. Twin towers of volcanic rock rearing 200Oft out of the ocean they are the most famous, and the most photographed, feature of St Lucia. Geography lessons and a few close shaves with donkeys and steep sided ravines later, I arrived, white knuckled, at my resort. And all was forgiven.

Sandals St Lucia is an imposing group of properties set amidst 150 acres of lush greenery rolling down to a private crescent shaped beach. The accommodation is truly luxurious with a king size four poster bed large enough to have a party in, a sumptuous lounge, a private patio, cable TV and a large drinks cabinet which was re-stocked each day all included in the price.

In an attempt to ensure that guests never wandered far the five gourmet restaurants and beach grill served food for twenty out of the twenty-four hours available each day. Evening feeding time became a real chore as one had to choose between French, Italian, Mexican, Japanese and Creole restaurants whilst ensuring that you retained a tiny space in your ever expanding stomach for that midnight snack of ribs and rice. Luckily I was only staying two weeks so managed to get away with increasing my weight by a mere16 pounds. The smallest meal of the day was breakfast with a choice of only thirty or so dishes with anything from fresh fruit platters to waffles or sliced beef on offer. After a hearty breakfast there were a multitude of activities, again all included in the price, to help you while away the hours.

The scuba diving was something that had caught my eye but I had presumed it was only available to fully qualified divers. Not a bit of it; after a brief chat from George, the resort instructor, I found myself being trussed into jacket, tank and mask to have my first practical lesson in the hotel pool. Not an activity for the faint- hearted, I took to my flippers and aqualung like the proverbial fish to water. The morning was taken up with basic instruction and emergency drills and by early afternoon I was chugging away from the diving centre in the resort boat. Heading out to the dive site we paralleled the rugged coastline punctuated by sandy coves and dotted with flourishing blooms of jasmine and passionflowers. Sprawled around me on the deck, soaking up the Caribbean sun, were a mixture of seasoned divers and nervous first timers like myself but any fears we had disappeared as we rounded the headland into Marigot Bay. Made famous to the older generation as the location for Dr Dolittle this is by far the prettiest natural harbour on the Island. Framed on three sides by verdant green cliffs the bay is skirted by coconut palms which beckon gracefully in the gentle breeze. As the sun danced off the glistening blue surf it was difficult to imagine a more exquisite view. But there were far more alluring sights waiting to be discovered just a few metres below the shimmering surface.

It is no exaggeration to say I was overwhelmed by the experience of my first dive. My initial reservations were swept aside by the unbridled beauty of the sub aqua world, within seconds of entering the silent water I was surrounded by the sort of sea life you can normally only discover in wildlife documentaries. I had been forewarned that the bay's inhabitants were partial to banana and as I peeled one, blue and yellow sea horses began to suck at my fingers. Just like their four legged, earth bound, namesakes these delightful, almost cartoon like, creatures, seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors on their territory. I swam deeper through vast shoals of fish displaying a living kaleidoscope of colour. The red and yellow stripes of the flat fish gave way to the majestic markings of the golden spotted eels as they wove effortlessly through the intensely clear water.

An inquisitive barracuda glided up to meet me, his skin glowed green in the light then seemingly transformed to a glittering electric blue as he twisted around me. After a few moments of inspection my new found friend obviously decided I was of little interest and with a contemptuous flick of his tail he magically disappeared.

As I descended further the water transformed from deep, almost mystical, blue to luminous purple until eventually, I found myself floating inches above the coral reef. A myriad colours, representing the whole spectrum from red to green, and a whole new world of organisms had sat peacefully on the seabed for many thousands of years. In the acute silence I felt privileged to be suspended above such beauty.

But sadly, with only thirty minutes of air, it was an experience that had to end and as our boat returned to the resort the Caribbean sun was just setting. As the dark of the sea swallowed the yellow gold of the sky I stepped ashore onto the warm sand. The sun sank behind the swaying palm trees as I watched the last vestiges of light fade into night. If a paradise were to be created they would surely use St Lucia as the blueprint.

Women Go Into Battle

Both sexes have the right to defend their nation, argues John Nichol.

It was reported on the front page of The Times this week that Mister Blair intends to ask the public if they approve of women in combat roles. It is a little late for that; the first female aircrew joined Royal Air Force combat squadrons a number of years ago to fly its Tornadoes and Jaguars.

And not just the RAF; the Army has females undercover with 14 Intelligence Company in Northern Ireland, their incredibly dangerous task is to conduct covert surveillance operations against known IRA "players". Many of the UK's little known prisoner of war interrogation units are staffed with female officers, friends who have had the misfortune of experiencing the woman's touch on these 'Conduct After Capture' courses testify that the women are far more efficient interrogators than the men.

Of course it's not just in recent years that we have seen an upsurge in military 'girl power'. From the days of Queen Bodecea through to Odette Churchill, who served with the World War 2's Special Operations Executive in occupied France, women have made daunting fighters. The film image of pretty agents with perfectly manicured nails is destroyed when one hears that the faces were beaten beyond recognition and the nails pulled out with pliers by Hitler's SS thugs. But it is still the male perspective that dominates. As Sarah Ford, from Northern Ireland's undercover unit, said of her male comrades, "I was a huge shock to these lads. They thought they were James Bond and didn't want a big soft girly messing up their bravado and antics. But they soon realised I could kick and fight like the next man."

But should they be allowed to fight and why should we bother to ask the public's opinion now? Could it be that the New Labour would prefer to abdicate it's decision making responsibilities so that when things go wrong they can hold up their collective new hands and say "Sorry, not my decision, Guv."

Needless to say the debate will have the feminists burning their bergens and ranting for equal rights whilst some crusty old generals will be wheeled out of hibernation to dribble about the effect on regimental traditions. But what about those who really matter, the females who want to fight and the men who will serve alongside them.

Steve and Sue are two RAF fighter pilots who also happen to be partners (names changed to protect the innocent). Steve supported his girlfriend 100%; "Sue's a bloody good pilot and I'd go to war with her any day." Which is all very well, but what if the worse happened? "It could happen at any time to me or to her, that's what the job is about. You accept that or get out."

One of the arguments most used against female troops is the question of a woman's physical strength and mental ability to do the job. Sue was adamant that, as long as selection standards were not changed females could compete on an equal level with their male counterparts.

I have seen many men who were neither physically nor mentally up to the task of coping with military life; they were allowed to bumble on regardless. But the question of selection and training is much more interesting and herein lies part of the problem. A few years ago, the RAF was forced into allowing women to train to be aircrew and in the ill-judged rush to appear politically correct training standards were allowed to fall. A flying instructor from that time was told to ensure that his female students passed the course regardless of ability, if he was not willing to do this the hierarchy would find someone who was. This ludicrous position helps neither the military nor the cause of the many female candidates who could really make the grade. Indeed it is a source of great offence to most females in the armed forces that some of their compatriots let the side down.

So how will the Government seek approval for this new venture? An internal MoD document is reported to say that using the Central Office of Information's weekly survey will be "the quickest and cheapest method" to test the water; "less likely to attract public attention." Despite efforts to avoid the issue there will be one thing guaranteed to attract public attention: our first female prisoner of war.

In the military's last three major conflicts, the Falklands, Bosnia and the Gulf, we have always had British POWs; one can presume that during the next conflict - and there will be one - things will not be that much different. How will the media and the public react to the spectacle of a British woman being beaten and paraded on TV by her foreign captors? Dr Reid, The Armed Forces Minister, is said to be privately worried about the affect female POWs might have on morale. And so he should be; but is there a difference between male and female POWs?

I would have to say yes. As a POW in Iraq I regularly saw other male prisoners being beaten and tortured; the sight and sound was degrading, horrific and something that will never leave me, but I did not try to intervene because it would have been a pointless exercise.

However there was a female who had been captured; Major Rhonda Cornum was an American Army doctor who had been shot down in a Blackhawk helicopter whilst on a search and rescue mission. Both her arms had been broken in the crash and despite the most incredible pain the Iraqis tried to strip and sexually molest her on a number of occasions. At one point a young American soldier tried to prevent this and was beaten to a pulp for his efforts. She did not ask for assistance but he felt he was duty bound to protect her. Was he wrong? What would the armchair warriors who appear on our nightly news programmes and comment from the comfort of a studio have said if he had left her to her fate? Would I have reacted differently if it had been my female crewmate being raped? I would like to think I would have had the courage to do something, however fruitless; thank God I did not have to find out. But is it a man's duty to protect?

A serving frontline commander offered his views regarding females in battle, he was adamant that they would be as effective as men. I'm sure he's right. I then put the possibility of one of his female officers being captured and raped, or worse still being repatriated pregnant or bearing the enemy's children. The very notion repulsed him; he admitted the thought had never crossed his mind. Regardless of Government studies females are already on the front line; if we are to allow them into combat then it's about time we aired such thoughts, however repugnant and harrowing.

I recently spoke to a 19-year-old woman who was learning to fly; her one ambition in life is to become a fighter pilot. She looked at me in pity when I asked her if she had fears of being captured and tortured, "exactly the same fears as you had I imagine", she replied. "Why do you feel the need to worry about me? It's the job I want to do and I'm capable of it, if I get captured it will be my problem, not yours". This is the crux of the matter; female combatants don't ask for or require any special consideration, the problem is male-generated and for males to overcome. The public can be consulted about it until the cows come home but it is the men, especially those in the military, who will have to deal with their fears and prejudice.

A female armed-forces journalist recently argued with me that women are the untapped reserve that the military desperately needs if it is to tackle manpower problems. I think she's right; as we men come to terms with our deep seated prejudices, women will rightly be allowed to fight for their country, and sooner rather than later. I am confident that women will acquit themselves with honour. When that day comes, however, I hope and pray that my worst nightmares never come true.

Stranger Than Fiction

John Nichol was shot down and captured in the Gulf War. Then he learned that his suffering was mild compared with what other veterans were having to endure. Now he has written their story - as a novel.

Six and a half years ago I walked out of a cell in Baghdad; after 49 days as a Prisoner of War I was free, my war was over. As the country waved Union Flags troops marched through the streets of London in celebration of a stunning victory over an evil dictator. But for thousands of Gulf War Veterans the suffering had just begun. As swords were sheathed and the ticker-tape was consigned to dustbins Gulf Veterans began to complain of mysterious illnesses and diseases that the Ministry of Defence has claimed for years do not exist.

For most it started with lethargy moving quickly through irrational mood swings to severe fatigue and muscle wasting. I spoke to one veteran who used to run marathons. Newcastle born medic John Brown served with the infantry during Desert Storm, he saw plenty of active service including treating the casualties at the notorious 'friendly fire' incident which cost several British soldiers' lives. When he returned from The Gulf he spent months in a military hospital with unexplainable chest infections, he was medically discharged from the Army and can now only walk a few hundred yards without becoming breathless. At the age of twenty eight he was told by his doctor that he would never be fit enough to work again.

When I first met the Veterans Groups I was sceptical about their claims; surely they must be mistaken or exaggerating the stories? Within hours of my first visit, I was convinced that not only were they genuine, but that they had been abandoned by the very government that had sent them to war.

Larry Cammock left the army in I974, sixteen years later a policeman knocked at his door in Newcastle to inform him he was being called up under the National Service Act. A train journey later he arrived at a military reception centre in London to be told that, at the age of 45, he was going to war. Larry returned home, said goodbye to his wife and children, and flew out to the Gulf. Within three days he had had in excess of eighteen inoculations, most of which went unrecorded, a few of which were secret. He was asleep in his tent one night when a medic unzipped his sleeping bag and injected him in his arm. "What the hell was that?" he yelled, the medic looked at him and replied "you don't want to know mate." Larry returned from the war a shadow of his former self; he has violent mood swings, sleeps little and his memory has all but gone; a keen gardener he has difficulty recalling the names of his favourite plants.

But it is not just the veterans themselves who are suffering, many believe that Gulf War Syndrome is responsible for horrendous birth defects in their children. One American veteran's son was born with Goldenhar's Syndrome, a non-hereditary birth defect that can be caused by exposure to environmental toxins. When Casey was born his face was lopsided and he had an ear missing, seven hours later doctors discovered that many of his internal organs were not connected. He is now kept alive by being hooked up to a feeding tube 18 hours a day. As he has no functioning colon his mother has to suction his body wastes through another tube 10 times a day. It could be claimed that this case is unique, however Hilary Meredith, the veterans’ solicitor, says that of the 1300 veterans she represents 60 have children with birth defects. Some troops in Germany were warned not to conceive any children for at least 12 months after their injections for the Gulf.

Many veterans have died; estimates vary but the Veterans Association says that some one hundred and forty of their number, with an average age of thirty, have died since the end of the war. Hilary Merideth says, "So far twenty eight of my own clients have died, several have been told that they will be dead in a few months. How many more have to die? "

I sat with the group for about six hours at first incredulous then increasingly spellbound by their stories, for the first time someone was willing to listen to them. The hardest thing to bear for these men and women was the fact that they felt the country had ignored their sacrifice and turned its back on them and their families. For years their claims had been arrogantly rejected by the Government, they had been told they were liars and malingerers simply "trying it on" in an effort to get some compensation.

Then, piece by piece, their stories were confirmed. For five years the veterans had been telling the MOD that organophosphate pesticides had been used in the Gulf, for five years the MOD had said the veterans were either mistaken or lying. In December last year, the Armed Forces Minister Nicholas Soames, was forced to concede that it was the MOD who had been mistaken or lying. What action was taken against the offending officer? He was 'reprimanded' for misleading Parliament. He still has his job, still has a salary in excess of £60,000 per year and, more importantly, he still has his health.

Only this week it was revealed that Department of Health warnings about the cocktail of drugs being given to troops had been ignored. In the supposed 'fog of war' which surrounded the clubs and bars of Whitehall, a memo detailing the dangers of multiple vaccines was logged and then forgotten. It warned, "when vaccines are combined, there is evidence of severe loss of condition and weight loss"; the very symptoms that the veterans display yet those in authority refuse to acknowledge.

While those of us fighting in the Gulf were being shot at and dying, MOD officials were losing faxes because of the pressures of war. If someone had made it up it would be hard to believe.

I decided to write Vanishing Point as fiction because the facts were just too incredible; veterans claimed their mail had been opened and phones tapped. One campaigner's wife was offered money by the security services to inform on other veteran's groups. In one bizarre episode John Parker, who was a driver in the frontline during the war, fought for four years to get access to his medical record, in desperation he resorted to the courts and they were finally handed over. Unbelievably the section dealing with his Gulf service had been wiped clean, even details of inoculations given for his subsequent service in Bosnia were missing. The more I heard the more I became interested; the revelations would not have been out of place coming from a tin-pot dictatorship.

Somebody had something to hide and it would make a great plot for a novel; I decided to take many of the accounts I had heard and mould them into a thriller. Of course the danger is that I could be accused of cashing in on the veteran's suffering. I sent a copy of the new book to one of the guys who had told me his story, I received a letter from his wife. She wrote, "he was thrilled to see the book, I could see in his eyes that at last someone believes him."

So what is the climax of Vanishing Point? What secret is so horrific that the establishment would go to any lengths to protect itself? In the film 'A Few Good Men' Jack Nicholson's character, a US Marine Colonel, is in court justifying his actions over the death of one of his men. "It's because of people like me protecting your walls that you sleep safely at night, " he bellows, "but you can't handle the truth." I am convinced that someone, somewhere, knows the real truth about Gulf War Syndrome, when it is finally disclosed will it be too much to handle?

60th Anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden

60 years ago today, airmen of the RAF's Bomber Command were preparing for an operation that would come to dominate the history of World War II. Yet at the time it was just another routine attack amongst the many thousands carried out in the final months of the war. Freddie Hulance, a 21 year old pilot on 227 Squadron, didn't think there was anything unusual about it. "When we landed", he remembers, "a few people were talking about the fires, but we had seen much worse; it was just another target and it soon faded from our memories. It was many years after the war that we began to talk about it." And he still talks about that target today, because on the night of 13th February 1945, Freddie, now 81, flew his Lancaster bomber to Dresden, a name that has become synonymous with the controversy surrounding the bombing of the German cities.

In my eyes, the men of Bomber Command were amongst the greatest heroes of World War II. For the greater part of the war they took the fight into the heart of the Nazi empire when no one else could, or would. Yet their valiant efforts seem to have been diminished by time, questioned and criticised by historians who have never been called upon to fight for their country. Most people acknowledge the heroic feats of the RAF’s more famous Fighter Command, yet more men from Bomber Command died in one single night on one single raid than the total RAF losses during the whole of the months long, Battle of Britain. Of the 110,000 airmen who served in Bomber Command, 55,573 lost their lives, a casualty rate of over 50% and one of the highest of any military formation during the war. They sacrificed their lives in their thousands so that we could be free today, but 60 years on they feel increasingly hurt by the criticism of the bombing campaign and especially the furore surrounding the attacks on Dresden. So where did it all go wrong? Was the RAF's bombing of Dresden really a war crime as many historians have suggested? Should our country apologise for its conduct 60 years ago? My answer to that is a resounding 'no', indeed the time has now come to attack the many myths surrounding Dresden.

There are endless disputes about the Dresden bombing raid – historians, propagandists and polemicists argue over who launched it and why, the numbers who died, its contribution to hastening the end of the war, whether it was a just cause or a war crime. But there is no dispute about one thing – the awful slaughter and destruction it wrought on a city of rare beauty. By all accounts old Dresden was magnificent, a gem of the north European Renaissance which blossomed into a baroque masterpiece in the eighteenth century. Its elegant palaces and churches inspired comparisons with Venice and Florence. It had twice been hit by American bombers – in August 1944 and then again in October but neither attack could have prepared the citizens for the savagery of the 13th and 14th February. It was intended to be so. The instructions to the crews at briefing and the composition of the bomb loads they carried - a mix of high explosives and incendiaries - leave no doubt that ‘shock and awe’ was the intention.

Witnesses in the air and on the ground remember it well. In his memoirs, RAF pilot Robert Wannop recorded his thoughts as his aircraft bore down on the target. He wrote, "above it all we sat sombre and impassive, each man concentrating on the job in hand. The whole city was ablaze from end to end. It was like looking at a sea of liquid flames, inspiring in its intensity. It was so bright at bombing height that we could easily have read a newspaper".

Once the city centre was ablaze nowhere was safe. Those who stayed in the underground shelters risked being suffocated as the heat sucked the air out of their hiding places. Outside the winds created by the firestorm were now at tornado force, catching and hurling into the air not just debris but people too. Twenty-four-year-old Margaret Freyer recalled seeing a woman carrying a baby in her arms – "she runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. My eyes take this in but I myself feel nothing. I just stumble on. The firestorm is incredible. There are calls for help and screams and all around is an inferno. I hold a wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and face are burning. It feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips".

The horror of the attack is undeniable and the arguments over the numbers who perished that awful night continue today. Disposal of the dead began immediately and the ruthless Nazi efficiency helped - SS men came from the Treblinka concentration camps to put to use their expertise at disposing of bodies. A month later it was possible for an official report to conclude that the known number of dead was 18,375 and estimate that the final figure would be in the region of 25,000. Among the many wild casualty figures that would later be quoted, it remains the only one that has any official authority to it. It is undoubtedly a minimum figure. Most responsible histories add between 10,000 and 15,000 more for the unknown number of refugees who died, bringing the consensus death toll to somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000. It was a staggering total, a terrible calamity by any standards but in the years after the war the death toll took on all the characteristics of an urban myth. It has suited the critics to exaggerate and distort the truth about Dresden and to demonize those who attacked it. The death toll was upped as far as 320,000 by some and the argument that Dresden was an 'innocent city' and hence the victim of a war crime began to take hold.

Historian Frederick Taylor drew on recently unearthed archive material to demolish this argument. The city's own yearbook of 1942 boasted that it was, 'one of the foremost industrial locations in the Reich'. It had 127 civilian factories which had secretly been switched to war work producing bomb-aiming apparatus, searchlights, and parts for V-1 flying bombs to name but a few. The city’s chamber of trade admitted that ‘the work rhythm, of Dresden is determined by the needs of our army’.

But not only was Dresden pouring out materials for the war from its factories, it was also about to take a more active role in the fighting, whether its citizens wanted to or not. They may have thought it an ‘open city’, to be left untouched because of its heritage, but their Führer thought otherwise. The German High Command had designated it a military strongpoint, part of the defensive line along the River Elbe at which the Soviet advance could be held. The order from Berlin was that it was to be defended at all costs. It was also a vital link in the German rail network and twenty-eight military transports a day came through Dresden with troops and tanks to fight off the advancing Soviet army. An Allied POW who was in a train shunted into a siding on the night before the bombers came ‘saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp with thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars transporting supply logistics towards the East to meet the Russians.’ So ‘peaceful’ Dresden was in reality a war factory, a fortress and a transport hub - these factors alone made it a legitimate target for the bombers.

Another favoured argument of the critics is that 'the war was nearly over' and hence the bombing should have been stopped. With this argument, the armchair historians that criticise the deeds of the brave men of Bomber Command have access to a wonderful weapon called ‘hindsight’. That weapon simply wasn’t available to the aircrews who dodged the flak and the German fighters in order to defeat the Nazis. The harsh reality of the time was that only total war would bring Hitler’s Germany to its knees. And in a total war, you don't stop because you think the enemy might capitulate in a couple of months, you take the fight to the enemy until the final day. The end was far from apparent in those early weeks of 1945 when the Allied armies had still to cross the Rhine, and anyone bold enough to say the war was all but over would have received pretty short shrift from soldiers, airmen and public alike. There had been mass casualties at the Battle of the Bulge and Arnhem, the Germans were getting the first jet fighters airborne, and V-1 and V-2 rockets were raining down on southern Britain killing thousands of civilians. One wonders what the hindsight experts would be saying today if the RAF had stopped the bombing early and the war had gone on for months, perhaps even years.

I know what one person might say; At the time of the raids, a Dutch woman, Elka Schrijver, was one of 4,000 political prisoners in a jail south-west of Dresden where the male inmates were digging a huge hole in the ground. She says, "after our liberation, documents found by the Red Cross showed that this was meant to be a mass grave and that orders from Dresden had been received to shoot all of us. Subsequent to the Dresden raids, nobody had the courage to execute these orders. Those of us who were political prisoners in Saxony at the time directly owe our lives to those air raids."

Perhaps the final word on the Dresden raid should be left to Freddie Hulance whose Lancaster bomber was one of the first over the target – he has little time for those who deliver their judgements on his dead friends and colleagues with all the benefit of hindsight. "I once heard someone describe the bombing of Dresden as a holocaust", he says. "Well that was a word that I had never heard until the end of the war when we were shown what the Germans had done to the Jews. Knowing the real meaning of holocaust I am even more proud of what I did. I helped to shorten that war, a war that we simply had to win."