PM's speech to service personnel returning from Libya

"Thank you for all that you did and the incredible courage, professionalism and dedication that you showed."

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Lord Cameron

Welcome everybody.  If you’d like to come on down - I sound like Bruce Forsyth; I’m sorry about that.  Look, a really, really warm welcome to Number 10 Downing Street.  In the last 18 months I’ve held lots of parties in this room, lots of receptions, but I don’t think there’s any party or reception that has given me quite such an honour to hold as the one today because everyone I’m looking at in this room gave incredible service to their country in the operations in Libya, over the skies of Libya, on the sea and also on the ground. And the first thing I want to say is just an absolutely massive thank you for all that you did and the incredible courage, professionalism and dedication that you showed. 

When, as Prime Minister, you take that fateful decision to commit forces to an operation where there are considerable dangers - and there were huge dangers in Libya - it’s obviously a very difficult decision, a very tough decision but at least you make it knowing that you’re asking some of the most professional, bravest, most dedicated people anywhere in the world who are able to take on the most difficult tasks and just carry them out with complete brilliance and dedication as you did.  And so it was a massive relief to me to know that as I, as it were, pulled the lever, there were all these people who were ready to answer the call and to perform so well. 

And the first thing I wanted to say is just to make a note of the incredible contribution that you made and I want to make sure I get the figures right.   You flew over 3,000 missions, that was 2,000 strike sorties, that was one-fifth of the total strike sorties flown by NATO.  At its peak there were some 2,300 British servicemen and women deployed along with eight warships, a hunter-killer submarine and 36 aircraft including the first ever operational deployment of a typhoon.  And I think it is incredibly noteworthy that the Secretary General of NATO said that he thought this was one of the most professional and most successful operations in NATO’s 62-year history.  So I think that’s the first thing to say, is the extent of what the British armed forces did.  You carried a very big burden along with some fantastic allies and some very brave other countries, but you played a huge part and bore a great burden and the whole country should be very grateful for what you did. 

But it wasn’t just what you did; it was how you did it.  The other thing that obviously is of huge concern when you mount a difficult operation like this is how do you avoid collateral damage?  How do you avoid civilian casualties?  How do you do everything you can to try to help those that were resisting Gaddafi and his war machine but you do it in a way that minimises damage to others?  And I was unbelievably impressed by how accurate and how targeted and how careful you were. 

I’ll never forget going to Gioia del Colle and meeting some of the RAF pilots who were flying the missions and the maturity and the sense that people were showing about wanting to make sure that you hit the right target, wanting to help the NTC rebels, wanting to stop the Gaddafi war machine but knowing that if there was doubt in your mind you shouldn’t go ahead.  It was incredibly impressive to see the scale of debate and concern that you went through in every single one of those targeting missions and I think you can be incredibly proud not just of what you did but also the way you did it.

The third and final thing I want to say is about the mission itself because of course there were some people who said, ‘You know Libya is a country that’s quite far away; what does all this have to do with us? Are we doing the right thing?  Will good come of it?  How can we know what the outcome will be?’ Well obviously these are still early days, but I think we can actually put our hand on our hearts and say that we did a really great thing for that country.  Of course it’s not going to be a perfect, model democracy.  Of course there’ll be many jolts and bumps along the road but basically we helped that country to get rid of one of the most brutal dictators of the last century and give that country a chance of freedom and democracy and the things that we take for granted in this country.  And if we hadn’t done it, that wouldn’t have happened. 

Gaddafi was hell-bent on going to Benghazi and murdering and massacring his own people and it was the action that NATO countries, that Britain, that France, that America took - that you took - that stopped that massacre taking place.  So I think we have given Libya the chance of a better future and to those people who say, ‘Well, what’s this got to do with all of us back here in Britain?’  I would say two things.  First of all we are no strangers to what Gaddafi was capable of.  He murdered the police officer on the street of London; he managed to blow up an airliner over the skies of Lockerbie; he gave Semtex to the IRA - Semtex that they’ve probably not even released even to this day.  We know what he was capable of.  But the second thing I’d say is that our world is safer, our nation is safer if more countries make the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  In Libya there is the real chance that country could be a success.  It has oil wealth; it has a people yearning to be free and it has people who are now able to be free because of the incredibly brave things that you all did in this room. 

So a really heartfelt thank you from me.  I can’t tell you what a thrill it is having sat day after day, 68 meetings we had with the National Security Council in some bunker in the next door building there and we were talking about will the minesweeper get through to Misrata; well, I’ve now met the people that were sailing on it.  We were talking about how HMS Liverpool is getting on trying to stop Gaddafi in Tripoli; I’ve now met not only the Captain of that ship but he’s very kindly given me my proudest possession, one of the shell casings that was fired in anger that is now going to be an umbrella stand in the Cameron household.  So all of the things that we discussed.  I’ve even found the person - we were rather concerned why all these missions seemed to have the names of Wagnerian operas.  And I’ve even found the Wagnerian enthusiast from PJHQ who named all these missions! 

So it’s been great to have you here.  I hope that, as the CDS would say, there’s been a bit of jointery, a bit of mixing between the services and you’ve been able to share stories and share tales. 

One last point and it leads me to this fantastic group of people here on my right who we hope are going to be Christmas number one, don’t we? Apparently there is an online YouTube video from HMS Ocean singing something.  We are no match for you, so don’t worry!

But one last serious point is when you all go off on an operation like Unified Protector, like the action in Libya, you leave behind husbands and wives and children.  I’ve just been able to go and have a bite of lunch with my little one-year-old; it’s a great luxury of being able to do that here in Number 10 Downing Street.  You leave your wives, your husbands, your children behind; they worry hugely about what’s happening and I think we should remember the huge pressure that families are put under with the service life that you’ve chosen, and the nation owes you a very big thank you for what you do. 

A big thank you from me; a very warm welcome here to Number 10 Downing Street and now let’s here from the real talent - the Military Wives Choir.  Over to you.

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Published 6 December 2011