Since 2009 IWM has been running a project to collect the experiences of British military personnel serving in contemporary conflicts. Until last year, the dominant experience was the war in Afghanistan. But as this conflict began to draw down, British forces were deployed to help with other pressing concerns.
The latest IWM display, the fourth in the Contemporary Conflicts Programme, focuses on two different, concurrent deployments. Operation Gritrock was the British military’s contribution to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Operation Shader is the British element of the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the Islamic extremist group, in the Middle East.
As with the previous displays, Fighting Extremes utilises material gathered directly from personnel who have served on these operations. The IWM team has conducted interviews and gathered film footage, photographs and other artefacts at locations ranging from Cyprus to Belfast. A selection of this material forms the basis of the new display.
As a humanitarian crisis, the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 was not something that had obvious military connotations. Yet such was the rapid nature of the outbreak, only the military could help to provide the necessary speedy response. British military personnel were sent to Sierra Leone from September 2014, including engineers to help build medical facilities, medics to help staff them and infantry to provide security.
Included in the new display are interview clips with Corporal Anna Cross, an Army reservist nurse who was the third Briton to contract Ebola. A selection of objects, including an improvised device for washing hands and the wellington boots of another healthcare worker who contracted Ebola, show how difficult the disease was to control. Thankfully Sierra Leone was declared free of Ebola in November 2015 and Operation Gritrock was brought to an end.
A different form of danger is faced by personnel deployed on the ongoing Operation Shader. As part of a wider coalition against ISIS, British forces have launched air strikes, gathered surveillance and trained local opposition forces in Iraq, with air strikes recently extended to Syria.
Material in the display includes the experiences of Royal Air Force air crew flying aircraft ranging from GR4 Tornados to MQ-9 Reapers, the latter unmanned aircraft piloted remotely from the UK. Also on display are interviews and objects associated with infantry stationed in northern Iraq to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are fighting ISIS on the ground.
By looking at these contrasting operations, this new display shows how Britain’s armed forces meet a range of challenges. As recently retired General Sir Nick Parker reflects, modern conflict has “shifted from an understanding of warfare as a bi-polar affair with two sides fighting each other out to a massively complicated multi-national, multi-agency security requirement…Defence is only a part of security in this very complex world”. Fighting Extremes is on at IWM London until 13 November 2016.