Carry on Major

STUART Crawford understands the power of the military uniform and the allure of the army officer. As a young subaltern in the Royal Tank Regiment he was unafraid to put it to use.

"When I was first sent out to Germany there were 25 of us, all young men in our twenties. We were away in a foreign land, had money in our pockets and there were lots of young women - mainly nurses and teachers - all around.

"We were young, fit, single men, had the tight trousers and spurs and all that and we were very attractive to the opposite sex. The lifestyle of a young officer can be very promiscuous but it takes two to tango. A hedonistic lifestyle was had by all but that’s what young single people, put into those situations, do."

Yet Crawford, who rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, was appalled last week as the reputation of the force he served in for 19 years was sullied by one of the most salacious sex scandals in the recent history of the British army.

On Wednesday, an employment tribunal rejected the case of Angela McConnell, a married warrant officer in the King’s Royal Hussars, who claimed she had been coerced into sex with a senior officer and treated unfairly after their relationship had been discovered. The case led to weeks of front page treatment after evidence that both McConnell and her lover - the also-married Major Alistair Ross - had both had a string of affairs with other service personnel.

Crawford, who now runs a public relations company in Edinburgh after leaving the army in 1999, said McConnell and Ross had done lasting damage to the image of the British army.

"The difference is these were not young, single people doing what comes naturally," he said. "They were breaking all the rules on relationships across the ranks that the army has in place for very good reasons.

"What image of the army did it put across? Join the army and have a wild time rather than join the army, train for a responsible job and be useful to the rest of society. It was truly disastrous."

Sex is a thorny issue as much for the British armed forces as any other army around the world. Most experts agree it will become a growing problem as more women begin to serve in front-line regiments.

But the McConnell case threw up several uncomfortable questions for a top brass keen to promote the British army as a byword for modern professionalism.

High among them is whether the courtroom depiction of one of the country’s most historic and famous regiments as a rampant hotbed of illicit sexual liaisons between all ranks and genders is in any way representative of the army as a whole.

Former infantry officer Bob Stewart is among those who believes it is not the case. "Are all British regiments such hotbeds of licentiousness? No, they are certainly not. I never encountered anything like this sort of conduct in my whole military career. Are there, nonetheless, strong undercurrents of desire and temptation within every fighting unit? Of course there are."

Stewart says he speaks from painful personal experience. In 1993, he was a highly respected colonel commanding soldiers of the Cheshire Regiment during Balkan peace-keeping duties. Just a few months later he was known among tabloid headline writers as ‘Bonking Bob’ from Bosnia.

Stewart’s misdemeanour? He met and fell in love with a Swiss-born Red Cross worker called Claire Podbielski, who was 16 years his junior. At the time, however, he was married and after returning home and leaving his wife of 20 years, the divorce became very public property.

"The ensuing uproar was terrible," he said. "The press coverage might have been good fun for everyone else but it was bloody awful for my family, friends and for me. As career moves go, my actions did me about as much good as putting in for a transfer to Saddam’s Republican Guard." He subsequently left the army.

Colleagues describe Stewart’s relationship with Podbielski, to whom he is now married as a "genuine affair of the heart" that should not have attracted the opprobrium that it did at the time. But he understands why illicit relationships that do threaten the cohesiveness of fighting units do come about.

"We train our armed forces using men and women at their physical and mental peak," said Stewart. "They are pretty fit and virile and we put them into situations of conflict and chaos, often a long way from home.

"Because of political correctness there are now more women serving than ever before. But we are all programmed to be attracted to the opposite sex and so the inevitable happens. This problem will get worse because more women are entering the armed services and serving on the front line. But the fact that there are not more sex scandals in our forces is also a testament to the quality, restraint, decency and essential common sense of our men and women in uniform."

One serving officer, who did not wish to be named, said: "Of course there are sexual relationships that should not be happening in most regiments to some extent or another, just as it is in any other walk of life. It would be stupid to pretend otherwise. Not so long ago there was a female officer in one regiment who shagged just about everything that moved.

"But the sheer rampancy of what was supposed to be going on in the King’s Royal Hussars was not something most of us have experienced. Anyone with any amount of sense realises that you don’t have affairs across the ranks because if you are found out it’s the end of your career."

Army rules on cross-rank relationships are not there for reasons of morality. They have been put in place over centuries to protect the effectiveness of the fighting force.

"Relationships across ranks give rise to all sorts of tricky situations that you don’t want to have to deal with in the field," Stewart said. "If you are an officer faced with sending someone on ‘Mission Impossible’ do you send Mary Smith, with whom you have been having a relationship, or Brenda Bloggs, who you don’t really like? The rules are there to ensure there is no hint of favouritism."

It is this aspect that makes the King’s Royal Hussars episode so extraordinary. The tribunal heard that Ross, who had been tipped as the regiment’s next commanding officer, was a serial seducer who had had affairs with at least 10 women, including McConnell’s immediate boss, Captain Dee Holdom.

His affair with McConnell lasted for more than a year and continued for eight months after disciplinary action had been started against the couple.

But the tribunal found that there was no evidence that she had been coerced into the relationship. It also heard that she too had had a string of relationships, enjoying more than one affair with senior officers. She also had a two-year lesbian fling with a fellow soldier, and said in an interview yesterday that when she joined the army in 1986 most of the women she met were gay. "It was the norm. The ones that weren’t were prepared to give it a go. That’s the way it was."

Both she and Ross were described by the tribunal chairman as "accomplished at deceiving and lying." That may be but it is McConnell’s depiction of the officers’ mess of the King’s Royal Hussars that has done the most damage to the reputation of the army as whole.

"They are supposed to be the elite, an upper-crust cavalry regiment," she said. "The reality is more often like a stag night pub crawl or rugby club bash. Their behaviour is appalling when they’ve been drinking."

Sex is always on the agenda, said McConnell. "They boast of conquests past, or plan which ‘old boot’ they intend to have next.

"That’s how they see women - old boots, trophy objects, to be used and broken in. Their sleazy bets book is typical of this rampant sexual mentality. It’s dressed up as a 200-year-old tradition - gentlemen making formal wagers for port or champagne in a beautiful leather-bound ledger. It’s more like a book for bounders or bedders."

Jonny Beardsall is a former Hussars officer well versed in the traditions of the macho, drink-fuelled antics of the mess. While he does not condone what appears to have gone on in his former regiment, he nevertheless understands how this male-dominated world operates.

"As appalling as this salacious case has been, it should be remembered that Army officers do an important, demanding and often dangerous job, which regularly forces them to live outside the bounds of ’normal’ society for long periods," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph, the bible of the armed forces. "In order that they can cope with this, seemingly arcane traditions of regimental mess life, however absurd they may appear to casual observers, have developed over centuries in order to allow officers to live together and do the job to the best of their abilities."

But he adds: "That many will find the behaviour of Major Ross and some of his colleagues disappointing, even shocking, must not be allowed to besmirch our opinion of the Army as a whole."

Other former officers believe that some blame lies further up the command chain. "If this has been going on inside a regiment for so long then it must be within a culture in which a blind eye has been turned," Crawford said.

Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guards officer for nine years and a former Tory MSP at Holyrood, said there must have been a serious lapse of discipline within the regiment. "Nothing like this happened in my nine years in the army so there was clearly in this instance a breakdown in discipline and in the role of what constitutes senior management.

"That is the commanding officer and the regimental sergeant major who with such a spectacular series of events should have known what was going on and put a stop to it."

The Ministry of Defence says it is still pondering what to do following the conclusion of the McConnell case. The 41-year-old warrant officer was demoted to corporal after the affair became public knowledge and has now left the army. Ross, 42, has been ordered to retire but on full pension - the fact that precipitated McConnell’s claim of unfair treatment.

The affair leaves behind the vexed question of whether the army should now move towards fuller integration of women.

Crawford is a firm advocate. "If there was complete integration across the army then this sort of behaviour would be less likely to happen. Instead of 26 red-blooded men chasing one woman in the mess they would all be there as equals.

"I realise that not everyone will agree with me on this, but there is always a lot of huffing and puffing from armchair generals who say it wasn’t like that in my day. Those days are gone."

FORCED OUT FOR ROMANCE IN THE RANKS

ONE of the army’s most embarrassing episodes featured bombardier Heidi Cochrane, right, who was paraded in full combat gear as the face of a ‘new’, forward-looking armed services on a recruiting poster and a sign of how women were being fully and painlessly integrated.

However, within months married Cochrane had started an affair with a married sergeant. They ran off together and went AWOL for seven months.

Jason Archer chatted up Cochrane on UN duties in Cyprus when she was a Rapier anti-aircraft missile operator in the Royal Artillery and he was in charge of maintenance with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

They were both court martialled and have since split up.

In 2002 Captain Helen Molyneux was kicked out of the army after admitting a liaison with a Russian intelligence officer. At the time, Molyneux was a Royal Signals Officer from Merseyside on duty in Kosovo as part of a Nato peacekeeping force.

The incident was dubbed ‘The Spy Who Shagged Me’.

All ranks are affected by army morality. In the most famous case of its kind, in 1994, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Harding, 66, a married father of four, was forced to resign after being caught out in an affair with the glamorous Spanish-born Lady Bienvenida Buck, 43.

In 1998, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Pople was sacked after facing a court martial over his affair with a high-flying Wren. The 42-year-old Army Air Corps commander later lost an industrial tribunal where he claimed the MoD was guilty of sexual discrimination because the woman naval officer he had the affair with went unpunished.