December 4, 2021

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the top bosses in secret Forces unit that built Nightingale hospitals

Inhabiting a very strange place in the ranks of the Armed Forces, these 60 Reserve officers are more usually found in the boardrooms of global private sector companies.

But in a crisis, the members of the Staff Corps put down the business section of The Telegraph, pick up a military uniform and a hi-vis jacket and go to work as the intermediary between the Armed Forces and industry. 

What is this COBR-solution-in-a-box – and is it too niche to survive or a vision of the future military on operations?  

Martin Frobisher, a director at Network Rail, has been a member of the Staff Corps for the past year. He had never heard of the unit prior to being approached. “The Staff Corps found me,” he says, “because they had a specific requirement from the Army that relates to rail – carrying heavy plant and equipment long distances.” 

He is the Staff Corps officer on site at Manchester Nightingale and says the ability to look across all the projects – London, Bristol, Exeter, Birmingham, Glasgow – from first designs to final build meant problems identified in one location could be swiftly headed off in others. 

“We’ve got people on all sites, understanding what’s happening,” he says. “Of course, the problems that occur are all common; the task is the same, the location is different.”

“For a crisis like this where lots of different specialisms are needed, the Staff Corps can bring lots of contacts from industry. People in the Staff Corps are business leaders from a whole host of different fields. Whenever there’s been a problem on site, we’ve been able to draw in the Staff Corps list of contacts and find people who can help.”

As an example he points to the numerous fire safety issues over creating a new building from scratch to become Manchester Nightingale. 

“It wasn’t designed to the codes you would use for a new hospital and with lots of oxygen being pumped into the building, fire safety is an obvious area that needs to be done properly.”

Greater Manchester Fire Service were unable to commit tenders on-site for an indefinite period, so Mr Frobisher turned to the private sector. 

“I put a shout out on the Staff Corps WhatsApp group and some great contacts came back within a few minutes. It’s those links into industry that are particularly helpful.

“On a project like this there’s always a need for expertise that doesn’t necessarily exist in the NHS or the army; the Staff Corps can bring the whole scope of loads of different industries. If one doesn’t know it, somebody else will. It saves the taxpayer buying in another service.”

Chris Bosworth, an aviation specialist who worked at British Airways for 18 years, has been in the Staff Corps for six years. 

His ability to reach into the aviation industry across the UK has proved of great benefit to the military. He once arranged for soldiers from 39 Engineer Regiment, based in Kinloss, Scotland, a unit responsible for runway repair and maintenance, to spend time at Gatwick airport learning from colleagues in the civil aviation sector. 

As the liaison officer based in the Standing Joint Command, the headquarters in Aldershot running the military effort to battle Covid-19, he spent a lot of time filtering offers of commercial support from contractors and suppliers, with an expert eye not readily held in the military. 

Working with a fellow Staff Corps liaison officer based in Skipton House in London, the headquarters of the NHS, information was passed between the military and the NHS quickly and efficiently.

Workers build the new temporary NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC in Birmingham. April 8, 2020. – Jacob King/PA

The unit’s current Commanding Officer (CO), Gary Sullivan, said one of their biggest impediments during the Nightingale project was the little-known nature of the unit. 

“There are still Two Stars [Major General rank] in the Army who have never heard of us,” he tells me.

During the build of the London Nightingale hospital much of the existing car park space at the ExCel arena was taken up with uninterrupted power supply units and welfare facilities such as showers. New car park space had to be found to make the place practically viable. 

Mr Sullivan was asked to help on a Saturday evening, so immediately called the Chief Executive of “an extremely well known international development company” who had some land nearby. He was supportive but needed a green light from the London Mayor’s office, his partner in the venture.

Approaching midnight, Mr Sullivan got hold of one of the Mayor’s team. By 7am Sunday morning the Royal Engineers were surveying the site with a contractor and machines were working. By Monday evening a 1,000-space car park had been built. 

The Nightingale hospital at ExCel also needed a training centre for the clinical staff surging in. Mr Sullivan rang the Chief Operating Officer of AEG, the Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment company, who agreed on the phone to make available the O2 arena just across the river. 

He lauds this ability for Staff Corps officers (and they are all officers of at least Major rank) to reach back into the private sector and deliver project management capabilities on a national, or even international, scale. “If you want to know the name of the port manager in some far off land, we can find that for you,” he says.

Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics 

Little known around the Armed Forces, the majority of the army’s specialist brigade commanders – mainly the logisticians and engineers – are introduced to the Staff Corps as “critical friends” when they take up their appointments. 

It was in this capacity that Brigadier Phil Prosser, the commander of the army’s 101 Logistic Brigade and the man responsible for setting up the Nightingale hospitals, met Neil Ashworth, a former CEO of Yodel.

When the Covid-19 crisis hit the UK Brigadier Prosser was given the task of increasing massively the capacity of the NHS supply chain, already one of the largest such chains in the country. Having run Yodel’s five-year transformation programme, Mr Ashworth offered much needed support.  

The “instant access to industrial and commercial expertise” he provided, linked to the network of private sector leaders, was invaluable, Brigadier Prosser said. 

“The Staff Corps takes the military mind and adds a level of depth,” he said. They translate military terminology into commercial effect and “give you options”.

His initial problem was one of distributing the existing NHS stock of PPE reserves, held in long-term storage in Haydock. Martin Frobisher, the Staff Corps officer more usually seen at Network Rail (and “one of the most enthusiastic people in the world”), immediately offered to organise freight movement.

“He said ‘you’ve got the entire network, just tell me where you want the train and I’ll give it to you plus a station for storage’,” Brigadier Prosser said. “It opens up a different level of options.”

“You can very quickly generate a network of experts to give you those insights.”

As well as the PPE supply chain problem, the Staff Corps then lent into local authorities to plan and build the Nightingale hospitals. 

“The beauty of them is they think like a military person but have industrial experience; it’s a perfect blend,” Brigadier Prosser said, “they’re always challenging us”.

“They’re the backstagers. They’ll always be the unsung heroes but will never be catapulted into the limelight”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock gives a message via videolink at the opening of NHS Nightingale Hospital Yorkshire and Humber. April 21, 2020.  – WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe

A very British solution

From helping design the Mulberry harbours used on D-Day to advising on oil pipelines in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, the Staff Corps has for much of its existence been a “break glass in emergency” type of unit, says Mr Sullivan.  

Although holding commissions in the Royal Engineers – they bridle at the suggestion of honorary rank – the unit is a defence asset. However, members are rarely seen in uniform and enjoy an independence not seen elsewhere in the military. 

“If I have to sit in front of a three-star General and explain that he or she may be wrong, I need to be able to do that without wearing a rank slide,” Mr Sullivan says. 

“We are not decision makers, but offer options that may not otherwise be available to the military.

“You don’t really command the Staff Corps. The best you can do is herd a bunch of very slippery and somewhat alpha cats.”

Mulberry Harbours – 1944

Image of the Mulberry Harbours, used to secure the D Day landings in 1944. – Engineer & logistic Staff Corps Journal 2015

Formed in 1865 as The Engineer and Railway Staff Corps, the unit was designed to bring coherence to the many competing railway companies across the country. The need to move troops swiftly to meet any future threat meant commercial rivalries had to be set aside in the interest of ‘combined action among all the railways when the country is in danger’. 

Originally composed of 21 officers, mainly civil engineers employed on railway works but also including rail company managers, the number is around 60 today. Over the next couple of years another 40 or so will be added in the areas of telecoms and IT. 

Today the Staff Corps today comprises experts from the private sector in the fields of engineering, logistics, petroleum engineers and specialists in airport design, telecomms, water supply, geology and road, rail and sea transportation.

It is this expertise and the unique role the unit provides that enables it to range across government departments with authority as the situation demands – be it the collapsing Toddbrook Reservoir dam in Derbyshire last August, or the current need to build additional critical care space for the NHS in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Membership, which is by invitation only (it is probably the last bastion of the ‘tap on the shoulder’ method of recruitment) is usually at the level of Chief Executive, director and senior technical or operational managers. The seniority of the membership is deliberate to give authority and weight to the advice provided. Appointments take account of a prospective officer’s expertise as well as that of the firm to which access would be provided by his or her membership.

A rigorous process is followed to ensure no conflicts of interest, either from serving officers or from firms offering to help, and the unit purposely avoids recruiting from the big defence contractors so as not to allow any suggestion of business development.

There is no reward. Officers forego their pay so as to remain independent and retain the ability to speak truth to power. 

Airfield matting: Falklands War 1982

An RAF Phantom jet takes off from Port Stanley airfield on the Falkland Islands, just after the end of the war in 1982. Note how the temporary matting is lifted by the force of the jet on afterburners.  – Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps Journal 2015

Under the 1907 Haldane Reforms, Reserve units were brought more officially under Regular army command. Not so the Staff Corps. One of the oddities of this particularly odd unit is that it is not actually commanded by any military organisation, although for administrative purposes it sits in the army’s 77 Brigade.

As such, the unit holds a unique position in the armed forces and is the embodiment of the very British habit, seen often in the military, of producing serviceable answers that, on paper, really shouldn’t work.   

Throughout the unit’s 155-year history this non-standard existence has occasionally caught the eye of overzealous officials. Picking holes in this novel arrangement could cause problems for the military and the nation. So they’ve never been allowed to, and they haven’t.  

However, “there is a section of the military that struggles that we are predominantly civilian,” Mr Sullivan says. 

But therein lies one of the strengths of the Staff Corps, he tells me, The unit can “take the rough edges” off the usual interaction between service personnel and the “pink and fluffy” organisations found in wider society. 

The Roll On-Roll Off ramp, designed by the Staff Corps that enabled British tanks to disembark from ships prior to the invasion of Iraq, 2003.


Building the future

Lieutenant General Ivan Jones, Commander of the Field Army and Honorary Colonel of the Staff Corps, says the unit exemplifies the spirit of volunteering in British society. 

However, he accepts that over the “150 years it has provided balanced, impartial advice to defence” it has enjoyed a quirky existence. 

“They’re not commanded or controlled in the same way a normal unit would be. Unlike the rest of us they have the ability to say ‘no’ because they are true volunteers,” he says.

Covid-19 is a great example of how the Staff Corps works, he believes. “They’ve been providing strategic advice into the Standing Joint Commander [and have] provided advice into the MoD and into the Army. 

“Over the past four years now we’ve moved to a more integrated relationship. 

“Whereas before, the Staff Corps might sit off to a flank waiting for a phone call if a crisis was emerging at home or overseas, we now have Staff Corps leads engaged with our Brigades providing first-hand advice on the scene; coaching and mentoring.

“That means our commanders at that level have a really good feel for what is available in terms of that breadth of expertise that comes from the Staff Corps.”

For Chris Bosworth, the biggest lesson he has taken from the recent operation is for the Staff Corps to be better known around the military.

“There’s clearly added value, but it took them a little while to get used to who we are and why we were there.”

“Although we’re called the Engineering and Logistic Staff Corps, we’re actually broader than that. There are natural docking points that fit, but as you move away from those four or five points it becomes more vague.”

He says the big difference is that while the commercial sector can instill a very broad management base, the military can be a very predetermined career path without such general management experience. 

“The Staff Corps can be a mentor, coach and critical friend,” he says. 

“Something as big as Nightingale where there were Tier 1 contractors being commissioned…the military are very unfamiliar with doing that. While it was clear what was needed and how it was needed, procuring who was going to deliver that quickly was a combination of the two (Staff Corps and military).

“That’s where the power is; it’s the sum of the parts.”

Dame Jackie Daniel, Chief Executive of Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (front centre) speaks at the opening ceremony for the NHS Nightingale Hospital North East in Sunderland. May 5, 2020. – OWEN HUMPHREYS/AFP

General Jones agrees. The last few years has broadened the knowledge and understanding of the Staff Corps at the more senior levels of the army, he says. “The response to Covid-19 will amplify that across government more broadly.”

He says that the armed forces can sometimes bring an “accumulation of our collective experience” to a problem, “and that experience is normally pretty homogenous”. 

The Staff Corps, in contrast, offers a critical perspective and challenge, he says, to question the assumptions and approaches proposed by the military to ensure all possible options are explored. 

As for the future, with specialisms uniquely suited to humanitarian crises of the like seen in Britain and overseas recently, the Staff Corps is ideally placed to work across government departments.

“They will grow,” General Jones says definitively. In the short term, the planned addition of a corporate medical advisory support role could add around 20 officers to the unit.

“The organisation isn’t absolutely fixed. It has the ability to grow and evolve as the demand changes in light of environmental circumstances. 

“There is an opportunity now to look at how the Staff Corps links into Defence more broadly at the MoD level and across the services,” he says. 

“Whenever we have called them they’re always there on the end of the phone, ready to support Defence, giving up their time and advice free of charge. 

“I think they’re a remarkable group, true volunteers.”

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