“What a difference a week makes,” were the precise words used by Lieutenant Colonel Nick Zorab, Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Commander of the Strategic Reserve Force Battlegroup as he addressed hundreds of his troops who sat eagerly in front of him having just touched down at Pristina in Kosovo.
This was the United Kingdom’s rapid response, with a heavy emphasis on the word rapid, to the request made by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) to have Kosovo Force (KFOR), the NATO led peacekeeping force inside Kosovo re-enforced in response to the violent attack against Kosovo Police last month (24 Sept) leading to heightened regional tension in the Balkans.
A week, as the much-vaunted phrase exclaims, may well be a long time in politics, but for Lt Col Nick Zorab and his troops it is pitifully short to get a battlegroup to the other side of Europe and then to get them into a position to carry out their mission. Remarkably that is what has happened, and their in-theatre training regime now goes on at pace that will see them attain their goal of being ‘mission ready’ comfortably within schedule.
Kosovo is one of those regions that has been fought over and ruled over by empires down through the millennia; from the 1st Century Romans to the 20th century’s conflicts with some 500 years of Ottoman rule and being absorbed into a greater communist Yugoslavia in between.
With the death of Tito and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Kosovo found itself part of a now independent Serbia; however, in 1992 it pronounced itself a self-proclaimed republic. There followed several years of brutality and armed unrest between Kosovo and Serbia. It reached a point whereby NATO dealt an ultimatum to halt the violence.
Peace talks failed and NATO subsequently launched a 78-day air campaign forcing an agreement with the warring factions to withdraw troops, reverse the humanitarian catastrophe and for NATO to establish a peacekeeping force, KFOR which it did in June of 1999 under the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, and it has been there ever since.
In 2008 Kosovo declared independence which Serbia denounced, and it remains a disputed area to this day. The role of KFOR is to maintain peace, it is not there in support or defence of either Kosovan or Serb – its sole enemy is violence.
Tensions between the two protagonists have simmered and in the eyes of the general public have gone relatively unnoticed of recent. That all stopped on the 24 of September when a Kosovan Police patrol interrupted a cache of arms being moved across the north of Kosovo, the ensuing gunbattle left one Kosovan dead with others injured. There followed a build-up of military hardware along the administrative boundary line that separates Kosovo and Serbia.
Although 4,500 strong KFOR is scaled for peacekeeping operations, with this heightened sense of tension, the Strategic Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) sent out a clarion call for support.
Stand up the British Army’s Strategic Reserve Force (SRF), a full infantry battlegroup formed around the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment affectionately referred to as ‘The Tigers’. By mere coincidence a small element of the SRF were already in country conducting an operational rehearsal for just such an event when suddenly that all turned to reality.
SACEUR requested, Secretary of State for Defence announced at his party conference and five days later The Tigers started landing at Pristina to bolster the British contingent with a full scale-battle group.
Within days they will be mission ready, just as the Commanding Officer was quick to point out, “Just getting the people, the equipment, and resources here is only one part of the story. The next phase and that starts right now is to integrate everyone here into a battle group to actively conduct missions ahead of us.”
Joining The Tiger’s battlegroup will be 100 Romanians meaning the force’s total strength will be in the region of 750 personnel.