THE Sun is famously the favourite paper of our Armed Forces – loved by squaddies, sailors and airmen and feared by their political masters.
It is a hard-won reputation forged through decades of coverage not just from the battlefield but also from home when the guns have fallen silent.
Throughout a half- century of conflict, wherever Our Boys and Girls have been deployed, a Sun journalist has been hot on their heels to relay their stories back to loved ones and the readers who care so deeply about them.
And when they return home, The Sun is there, campaigning for the wounded and widows, and holding a flame to the feet of politicians to ensure they remember those who have sacrificed so much.
When the tabloid Sun launched in 1969, the Troubles had just erupted and troops were on the streets of Northern Ireland at the start of the longest continuous deployment in British history. Over 30 years, the conflict claimed 3,500 lives.
At its bloody height in 1972, Les Hinton, later Executive Chairman of News International, The Sun’s parent company, spent eight months close to the action as a reporter on the paper. He was among 70 injured in an IRA attack on Belfast’s Europa Hotel, “the most bombed hotel in the world”, hit by 36 explosions.
Les was told to keep his shoes under his bed so he could cross the inevitable carpet of glass left by a bomb during the night. The Troubles were complex but, from its early days, The Sun had a proud editorial empathy for the troops that would become its lifeblood.
Les said: “Many soldiers were teens from tough neighbourhoods, their choices narrowed to the Army or the dole. They were following orders in a conflict they couldn’t fathom — trained as fighters yet expected to act like policemen.
‘They were murdered with bombs and bullets, and now and then captured and tortured. The IRA tied cheese wire between lamp posts in the hope of slicing a squaddie riding shotgun through his throat. No wonder the hatred became mutual.”
In 1982 there was a very different conflict, the Falklands — a straight-up scrap for patriotic pride on an archipelago 8,000 miles away that few in Britain knew existed until Argentina invaded.
TALE OF GREAT VALOUR
The Sun’s man on the ground was Tony Snow. It is said he was sent to Portsmouth only to see HMS Invincible sail, leading the 127-vessel task force Britain dispatched to the South Atlantic. But when Snow arrived, he was told the plans had changed — he was off to war too.
The Falklands conflict cemented The Sun’s reputation as the Forces’ favourite. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was struggling in the polls and the decision to go to war caused yet another political storm. The Sun, a strident Thatcher fan, went full-throttle in support of her Falklands mission.
Headlines such as STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA and GOTCHA captured the opinion of much of the nation. With the Daily Mirror opposed to the war, The Sun was heralded as the only paper truly backing the troops.
Former News Editor Tom Petrie said at the time: “We now regard ourselves as the Forces’ paper, which the Mirror used to be.”
The Falklands conflict also introduced a phrase that sums up The Sun’s relationship with the troops. Mrs Thatcher called the brave servicemen “Our Boys”, capturing the nation’s affection for those who defend it. Eagerly adopted by The Sun, the phrase has stuck, although it has now morphed into “Our Boys and Girls”.
Camera shots amid gun shots
By Dan Charity, Sun Photographer since 2000
A YOUNG soldier writhes in agony after being shot by a Taliban sniper before he is hauled to safety by brave British comrades.
It was June 2012 in Helmand, Afghanistan, and I took these pictures from a water-filled ditch while pinned down by gunfire.
But the troops of 3 Rifles Recce Platoon were not taking cover – they dashed out to save the stricken Afghan, who had been hit in the chest.
Defence Editor David Willetts and I had joined the unit to see how British troops were training the Afghan national army. Later, flashes lit up the night sky as 3 Rifles fired mortars at the Taliban stronghold.
As gunfire rained down and helicopters buzzed over us , a soldier yelled: “Get your eyelashes in the dirt.” I popped up from the ditch to shoot the images.
After the mission, to clear a Taliban weapons compound, the wounded Afghan soldier was taken by helicopter to hospital in Camp Bastion.
Thankfully, he made a full recovery.
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the world united against him. More than 53,000 British personnel took part in the first
Gulf War, for which the US assembled the biggest military coalition since World War Two to boot Saddam back over the border.
The Sun’s men on the ground, in Saudi capital Riyadh and at the Allies’ base at Dhahran, were Political Editor Trevor Kavanagh and news reporter Nick Parker.
Trevor, who covered the rumbustious Press conferences of coalition commander US General “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf, watched nightly from the roof of the Riyadh Hilton as the scud missiles fell. The Sun men also had an alcohol problem — there wasn’t any.
Trevor said the only stuff on offer was siddiqi — illicitly distilled 90 per cent proof hooch. Some desperate reporters even tried to produce booze by filling a bath with alcohol-free beer and tossing in a yeasty loaf.
It was the first taste of war reporting for Nick Parker, now Chief Foreign Correspondent. Chemical attacks were a constant fear. He said: “We drank siddiqi through straws poked into our gas masks. I wasn’t accredited but went into Kuwait disguised as a British captain, in a uniform I got from an Army surplus store.
“Photographer Phil Hannaford and I marked our hired 4×4 Toyota with gaffer tape V-signs so we weren’t mistaken for Iraqis and bombed.”
It was just after noon, but dense smoke from oil wells ignited by the retreating Iraqis left Nick driving in total darkness.
He says: “Chris Isaak’s song Wicked Game came on the radio: ‘The world was on fire and no one can save me but you’.
“There were wild gun-shooting celebrations in Kuwait City, devastation at Mutla Ridge where Iraqis were cut to pieces by Apache helicopters, and the stench on the ‘Highway of Death’ — hundreds of charred Iraqi dead bulldozed into mass graves by the road.
“It was impossible to imagine we’d be back covering the second Gulf War 12 years later and see Iraq plunged into years of bloody chaos.”
Reporter Adam Lee-Potter was with the RAF in Italy in March 1999 when RAF Harrier crews bombed Belgrade to end Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s attacks in Kosovo, while Brian Flynn covered from Macedonia.
Thirteen British forces were killed in hostilities in the Balkans during the 1990s. Later, when the War on Terror was declared after the 9/11 attacks on America, Britain was torn over whether it was legally or morally right. The Sun got on with supporting our brave military.
Separating the politics from the fight is in part why the paper is so popular with service personnel. Former Defence Editor Tom Newton Dunn says: “It’s the lions we’re in it for, not the donkeys — standing up for them, backing their commitment, service and sacrifice.”
Newton Dunn witnessed fighting of a ferocity not seen since World War Two while covering the Iraq War from 2003. He also tracked down a tale of great valour — Private Johnson Beharry, who twice saved comrades ambushed in Al Amarah.
In July 2004, The Sun splashed: GIVE HIM A VC. But the story landed Newton Dunn in trouble. “I got a massive b*****king from his commanding officer,” he recalled. “He thought there was a genuine chance of a VC and that we’d buggered it up.”
But Beharry was indeed awarded the Victoria Cross, the first earned since the Falklands conflict. Another reason for The Sun’s popularity with the troops is that we share their irreverent humour — especially when revealing the sexual misdemeanours of the Top Brass.
When it was claimed the first female Red Arrows pilot was having an affair with her squadron leader, the headline was REACH FOR THE FLIES.
Former Editor Stuart Higgins says: “The Sun has always been the paper of the Armed Forces, but equally it has always reported the military’s misdemeanours. But those are rare, and that is why they are in the paper — because they are news.’
On my trips to Afghanistan, I would haul around two giant bags — one crammed with kit, the other with gifts including Page 3 calendars, a sure-fire hit in any dusty Army base. Former Defence Editor Duncan Larcombe took it a step further.
When he and snapper Andy Bush made it to one austere compound in a forgotten corner of Helmand Province, they found soldiers from 1 Mercian regiment exhausted after suffering brutal losses. The men were upset The Sun had not brought any Page 3 girls with them . . . a common complaint!
Larcombe promised an almighty homecoming party complete with Sun bus, Page 3 girls and free booze. And he delivered. Beside every reporter in a far-flung hell-hole, there is always a photographer.
After snapper Dan Charity and I found ourselves in an 80-minute firefight in the Honeycomb, a deadly corner of Helmand the MoD tried to stop us printing the images.
We told them that if they spiked the story, we would forget our positive piece on the training of the Afghan army and go home. It paid off — the MoD relented, and the story and pictures ran.
Whenever I was in Afghanistan I had one over-riding priority — to ensure the guys and girls and their families back home reading the story would feel proud. I always wanted a visit from The Sun to be a morale boost — the troops needed to know we had their backs.
As Libya spiralled into chaos in 2011, Chief Feature Writer Oliver Harvey and photographer Dan Charity were in the danger zone without the security of an Army patrol. It almost went horribly wrong.
JET ON ATTACK RUN
Driving in the desert, the only vehicle for miles around, they spotted sunlight on the wing of a military jet. It shot over their heads then, ominously, headed back. The plane — one of Colonel Gaddafi’s, looking for rebel forces — was on an attack run.
The Sun men bailed out of their car but were rooted to the spot, unsure where to find cover as a bomb hit. Oliver thought it had not detonated but in fact it had temporarily deafened him.
He says: “If you work for The Sun, some people think all you do is showbiz stuff. Other media can be quite sniffy, too. But the reality is that in five decades The Sun has reported from the front line at every single major conflict.”
As well as fighting for improved kit and conditions for troops, The Sun has campaigned for those whose service has come to an end.
Without question the most successful was Help for Heroes. Backed by The Sun, it has become one of Britain’s biggest charities and improved the life of thousands of veterans.
It has helped more than 21,500 service people and their families, raised £370million and sold seven million of its iconic wristbands.
Charity co-founder Bryn Parry says: “Help for Heroes would never have achieved what it did without The Sun. It is an incredibly powerful voice.”
MOST READ IN UK NEWS
It was the Help for Heroes spirit that led to the creation of The Sun’s annual Military Awards, affectionately dubbed the Millies.
The idea, inspired by Prince Charles, was simple enough: Ask Sun readers to nominate their Forces’ heroes, then throw a glittering evening on TV heralding the winners and finalists. Within months the MoD and Sky TV were on board.
The Millies, launched in 2008, is now a regular fixture, attended by celebs and royalty. In war and in peacetime, The Sun is the paper that supports Our Boys and Girls. And it will always continue to do so.
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