The book opens with an eerie parallel from 1770 in which a miniscule RM garrison in the Falklands succumbed to a Spanish invasion, leading to the resignation of the British Foreign Secretary. It goes on to give a fascinating account of S-T’s year in charge of NP8901, the Royal Marines piquet on the islands. S-T had the use of MV Forrest, owned by the Falklands Islands Company but on charter to the Royal Navy. As a keen yachtsman he used his trips around the islands to compile charts and sailing direction for as many of their harbours, creeks and inlets as possible. No other CO of NP8901 had done anything like that before; the driver was future recreation rather than defence but all too soon S-T’s charts, photographs and notebooks were all there was to use to plan the detail of the islands recovery. S-T also made, not just contact with, but friends of the isolated ‘kelpers‘ in the various outlying settlements.
S-T emerges as a distinctly clever officer, clearly a handicap in the palace politics of the rather small Royal Corps. He frequently achieves his aims via quick-thinking and corner-cutting not to say mild chicanery, but always for the good of the Service which however is often slow to appreciate and even slower to applaud such results. One magical example is his setting up a wireless station in the roof of Government House without the Governor knowing, thus complementing a link only available during UK working hours and not at all at weekends, not necessarily the most responsive setup for a colony under permanent threat of enemy incursions. The catch for clever people is that sometimes they have difficulty hiding their boredom as they watch the wooden wheels clunking round inside the head of a dimmer superior and eventually coming to the wrong answer.
Governor Parker, having failed to get S-T to use the Forrest as a taxi for a pair of dogs for one of his cronies, and to use Mrs S-T as a stool pigeon, effectively declared war on the officer charged with his defence in emergency, obstructing his military work, denying him access to information and social contact, and being generally awkward. Parker emerges from S-T’s book as obstructive, scheming, stupid, rude and dishonest particularly in peddling misinformation about S-T to London. Thank goodness that when the balloon went up Governor Hunt was in charge.
The MoD was typically unreceptive to S-T’s efforts to get the twice-condemned and dangerously insanitary Moody Brook barracks replaced, to have some senior personnel serve longer tours married accompanied, and to get a hardship allowance for the isolated Marines. In the event all these issues were to be kicked to touch by the Argentines.
The Stanley runway had been extensively used for practice by Argentine Air Force pilots who crowded into the regular air service in order carry out circuits and bumps as necessary for their future use in Hercules. S-T was told not to rock the boat by mentioning this, one of many pieces to the FCO’s appeasement jigsaw. The debate described on whether or not to extend the runway shows that the Argentines had already decided not to use it for fast jets before they invaded. It will cheer up the Black Buckers to know they were wasting their time (and bombs). After the surrender S-T was unable to find ‘any sign of’ their vaunted ‘crater’ although it is understood that the Royal Engineers’ Journal takes another line on this.
The most important task set by his military masters for S-T while in charge of NP8901 was to prepare a new Concept of Operations against any future invasion. This he achieved - its details are most interesting - and he got it approved right up to Cabinet level, but oddly it does not seem to have been fully applied on the day.
All of this section is invaluable background reading to the eventual war.
Cometh the War, cometh the man - enter S-T, armed with a CV that includes being OC of Fearless’ amphibious detachment, developing the use of an LCU as a floating base for commando operations in Norway, and commanding the Landing Craft branch of the RM; he clutching a satchel of absolutely vital information that was totally missing from any Admiralty chart. Blagging his way uninvited onto the expedition, S-T was fully employed giving dozens of briefings at all levels on the islands generally and their bays and beaches in particular. This was not a substitute for the sort of beach reconnaissance pioneered by COPP in WW2; for instance in one bay the sand had built up substantially in three years. S-T’s experience was however a corrective to, for instance, the view that kelp was always a problem - S-T knew how it could be used to advantage and particularly that it was unlikely to be mined.
Essentially an adviser and spectator to the planning process, S-T describes it well including the dawning realisation that a copybook landing, with the first wave brought in by helicopter - as pioneered by the Royal Navy in 1956 - was not going to happen. That the landing was initially unopposed was an enormous mercy.
At Ascension Woodward comes on board Fearless, he described in S-T’s diary (backed up by Commodore Clapp) as ‘arrogant, argumentative and bullying’ and totally unreceptive to any sort of briefing (as also recorded by Parry in ‘Down South’) - all transmit and no receive, and totally lacking in tact, all of which eroded confidence in his leadership as did the tone of his signals and his (recorded) rudeness to a subordinate who could not answer back. People who expect their leader to be a paladin and parfit gentil knight are often disappointed, but the disappointment in this case ran wide and deep. The later editions of ‘100 Days’ include a quote from ‘Reasons in Writing’ and extensive detail on how this fiasco came about. The first edition makes no mention of it - Woodward seems to have gone back to Hermes unaware that the meeting was in any way unsatisfactory. S-T later turned down a request to review the original edition of ‘100 Days’ saying the reviewer should either be someone who wasn’t ‘there’ or a military psychiatrist. Woodward did however have a broader background than S-T gives him credit for, including command of a Type 42. The irony is that S-T is on some ways like Woodward, for instance they share any intelligent person’s instinct to challenge other people’s assumptions.
The RFA Sir Galahad fiasco is well treated. There seem to have been two Major causes for this debacle. The reason those Welsh Guards were in Galahad in the first place is that S-T’s LCUs, which were planned to meet up with Intrepid again for a second ferrying trip, had been hijacked behind his back by a Parachute Regiment major and were therefore not available. Once delivered by Galahad, S-T repeatedly advised and eventually ordered (an RM major ranking senior to an Army major in those days) the Welsh Guards officer responsible to get his men off the ship. The identity of this Guardee was not known to S-T but he writes that it has been revealed in print by Simon Weston, and two company commanders onboard Galahad are named in The Times of 8th June 1983. The later promotion of an officer whose misjudged priorities caused the deaths of so many of his men says something about the Army which I find disturbing (but unfortunately I have similar feelings regarding a couple of RN promotions), so also its later efforts to plant a false account of the event in the Daily Mail, and to bully S-T, and generally to deny the reality of what happened. S-T for his part has endeavoured to give something of the Guards’ point of view at the time in his book, which theme is also explored in the 1983 Times article just cited. After the air attack it only took half an hour to get all the troops off the ship (see Woodward, ‘100 days’).
There’s a disturbing passage which explains why there were no VCs for the RN and RM. As to lesser honours, I am with S-T when he says that Rod Bell should have been recognised for his invaluable services as a Spanish speaker with particular insight into the Latin American mind.
I was intrigued by the references to the use of landing craft for minesweeping. An attempt to do this using converted LCTs in 1956 was a total failure.
One lesson well brought out is the problem of only having one crew for each landing craft. The strain on them being watch-on, stop-on throughout the war must have been incredible and the failure of others to appreciate this is disappointing.
Sadly, the shoemaker should stick to his last. When S-T steps outside the amphibious sphere his judgments often seem to me to be flawed, particularly in respect of the technicalities of SHAR employment and maritime air defence generally, and in his original naïve diary entry regarding the torpedoing of the Belgrano. There are also other uninformed and negative comments, such as S-T’s on the Battle group’s sudden exit from Ascension and on Hermes’ boiler clean, which are now fully dealt with in later editions of ‘100 Days’. S-T quite reasonably wishes the Hercules air bridge to Stanley had been better interdicted but tracking the aircraft as they flew in over land must have been impossible and stationing a Sea Dart ship west of the islands would have been suicidal - we lost two as it was, and he sometimes seems unaware of the sheer shortage of resources. Wiki says that of the 45 Argentine aircraft we successfully shot down only one was a Hercules. I think that even his preference for Reffell over Woodward is based on flawed reasoning, for there was sufficient amphibious warfare talent in COMAW and the LPD captains. The extraordinary near blue-on-blue between HMS Cardiff and S-T’s LCUs may have been the result of a communications logjam - the Fog of War writ large - but S-T’s quote from a much later interview given by Woodward suggests that the latter never understood what had happened and had some responsibility for what was nearly the loss of hundreds of guardsmen (and four LCUs and their RM crews). The catch in much of this is that an even more intelligent writer’s antennae would be sensitive to knowing what it is one doesn’t know and tuning one’s strictures accordingly.
The war over, the warriors returned and various desk-bound and armchair villains emerged from the woodwork, including the Hydrographer of the Navy who let fly a litany of misrepresentations regarding S-T’s 1970s survey work which S-T was able to rebut point by point. It is to be hoped that the many lessons pointed up in this book have been well absorbed for the future. Ironically in respect of the want of recognition at the time of the importance of S-T’s 1970s reconnaissance, ten years before that the Navy had sent out a book called ‘Lets Go Beachcombing’ encouraging its officers to do just that, the wide world over.
This is a cracking narrative of how it was at the sharp (and, also, cold and wet) end. The whole tale is told with a dry wit and no little Bootneck humour peeps through as well. An oddity is that S-T seems far more pleased at being nominated Yachtsman of the Year than being awarded an enormously deserved OBE, which he fails to mention at all.
A very interesting selection of photographs; good glossary and index; and an interesting bibliography, to which could now be added ‘Down South’ by Chris Parry and ‘Scram’ by Harry Benton. I did have difficulty sometimes in following the narrative, numerous places are mentioned which are not shown on the maps in the book (probably because there were no such detailed maps for the publisher to copy).
Krill is good eating on hot buttered toast, you will be interested to hear.
Four Mr Mushroomheads.
‘Reasons in Writing’ by Ewen Southby-Tailyour (Pen & Sword 1993, ppbk 2003 £14.95)