“Politicians don’t appear to have a clue about Defence”
Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, quoted by The News, Portsmouth, April 2012
Admiral Woodward swallowed the anchor on retirement from office as CINCNAVHOME in 1989. This is the third edition; the first was published in 1992, which attracted sufficient comment for a second edition to appear in 2003. At that stage Woodward dealt with many received, or elsewhere printed, comments and applied some hindsight (his word). The preface to the second edition gives a ringing endorsement to Sharkey Ward both in achievement and analysis and emphasises how essential to global reach is organic maritime air power. The preface to the third edition says very little, except to explain, via Woodward’s 1982 Report of Proceedings, how our Government had comprehensively baited the hook for Galtieri.
Woodward states that, as in 1992 and 2002, it is still too early to attempt an official history - I suspect he is privy to information that it is yet too early to divulge, or that he suspects that there is relevant information still embargoed which even he doesn’t know about. For instance there was, very recently, a reference to there being direct intelligence from Chile on the General Belgrano’s intentions, which of course could not be brought into play to refute the fatuous and captious observations of Tam Dalyell and other ignorant or malign subversives. There have been other critics like Max Hastings who have been unable to grasp the maritime realities of the conflict, but have nevertheless felt able to make up a story about it. I am with Woodward in regretting that Conqueror was not ordered to sink the Belgrano group and eliminate her Exocet-carrying escorts, rather than just to sink Belgrano herself; Woodward quotes Fisher (who was quoting Macaulay): “Moderation in war is imbecility”.
So, not in itself a history, this is however a categorical statement of how the Falklands War looked to the naval Task Group Commander, aware that many in London
(particularly including Nott) would be careful to ensure that it was Woodward’s head on a charger and not theirs if there was any failure, even if London
had failed to will the means. As such it is a necessary input to any future complete official history, as are most of the other works penned by participants - Clapp, Barker, Hart-Dyke, Ward, Morgan, Parry, Lipiett, Fieldgate,Yates, Thompson, Southby-Tailyour, Vaux, Jolly, Rapkins, Puddefoot, Johnson-Allen - even Tinker - and I’m sure I have missed some - and that‘s only an RN and RM list. There is no point in me recapitulating the story in extenso; as above, it has already been told and re-told many times.
The Fog of War has been slow to clear, but Woodward acknowledges difficulties caused by decisions later seen to be insufficiently explained, verbal exchanges not confirmed by signal, and misunderstandings over his status vis à vis the other Component commanders, this last exacerbated by ambiguity on the part of Fieldhouse, with whom he had a rather edgy relationship going back some years. Woodward’s downstream difficulties on the day with Commodore Clapp are partially explained by differing understandings of the command structure and chronically overloaded signal communications.
Chris Parry’s ‘Down South’ raises some points that still deserve discussion, if not answers, for instance:
Why his Flag Captain was excluded from Woodward’s Captains’ Luncheon party in Antrim.
CINCFLEET’s corrective signal relating to air threat assumptions.
Sheffield’s state of readiness when it came under air attack, and WHY her Satcoms were prioritised above her air warning systems.
One understands from the book how the management of our submarines from Northwood, using procedures unadapted to the South Atlantic situation, caused us to miss a chance to sink the Argentine aircraft carrier complete with its air group and their Exocets, which would have saved us much effort and many casualties. It is also clear how pusillanimous Rules of Engagement, imposed by a fundamentally anti-British Foreign Office, prevented effective prosecution of the war in its early stages, and could have left the Task Force exposed to the (thankfully sunk in the nick of time) cruiser General Belgrano and her Exocet-armed escorts. The same Whitehall spirit of appeasement, even with the war well under way, prevented us sinking one of the Argentine Type 42s. How far have we drifted from Cunningham’s “Sink, burn, destroy - let nothing pass!”
The planning for the landing was more onerous than it need have been because the objective of directly recovering the islands was not set until 12th May, following fatuous ideas of merely posing a threat while winter came on and we became incapable of acting. As it was, thanks to the earlier loss of real maritime air power - the Phantoms and the Buccaneers - we had a landing capability but not an assault one (even now we can only use our considerable amphibious assets to land troops if there is no air opposition). Eventually San Carlos argued for itself, and even there we only got away with it because of Argentina’s strategic and tactical incompetence.
Any autobiography tells you something about the writer even if he doesn’t intend so. Woodward comes across to me, even through his ghost, as somewhat defensive and insecure as a person - something I suspect the old Dartmouth regime did to some adolescents - leading to an apparent self-protective diffidence and distance. He actually acknowledges a lack of tact which clearly was unhelpful to his leadership. It is sad that none of the excellent superiors that he was privileged to serve under, and who brought forward the diffident and rather laid-back Sub Lieutenant (bimbling through his career in a sort of permanent daze, only in the Navy so that his father could dodge paying public school fees) and turned him into a nuclear submarine commander, mentored him enough to weed that out. Overall, Woodward seems selective about who he would listen to, preferring advice from those he already knew, but this book explains how he tried to filter out extraneous detail so as to concentrate on problems that he alone had to solve, although sometimes this resulted in rather brusque treatment of those below him who seemed to be trying to tell him too much. The problem here is that the commander can end up with partial information and not know what he is missing that should also be important. As an example, if he had let Southby-Tailyour have a bit more rope he might have understood what the real rate of going overland actually would be. What matters of course is that on the day, faced with an entirely unexpected and severe personal challenge, he overcame all difficulties and won his war. Which also sells him as a remarkably brainy organiser, given the urgency and the raw materials to hand. His is a good analytical brain as illustrated by his noticing that Black Dick Howe’s celebrated victory of the Glorious First of June did not prevent the French commander achieving his aim - there and in San Carlos water a commander failed to realise that there are (rare) occasions when attacking the enemy’s fighting force is not the first priority.
As to the materials, most Falklands commentators seem unaware of the dire mechanical condition to which weather and action had reduced Woodward’s fleet, which, if Menendez had not been pushed into a corner, might have failed in its task as its ships severally fell apart below decks; as to action damage, we lost six ships but could easily have lost another seven.
This edition, and possibly the second, contain an account of the mystery arrival of a Sea King in Chile and how it got there and what it was supposed to be doing, and how the operation was doomed by losing its weather window due to SAS professional arrogance (as already disastrously demonstrated on the Fortuna glacier, see Parry), this partly caused by ambiguous communication. The operation is apparently treated more fully in "Special Forces Pilot", by Richard Hutchings DSC. Woodward says he doesn’t know what happened to the Special Forces men on board but they appear to have been rescued by HM Submarine Onyx which allegedly bumped a rock while doing so.
Woodward’s perceptive, humane and sympathetic comments on stress are worthy of note, including his references to seniors in the 1940s who had had the stuffing knocked out of them by six years of war, or who found it difficult to take anything seriously or to get a grip in peacetime. I could echo that with reminiscences of my own from the 50s and 60s.
At the end of the book Woodward regrets how some of the Captains ‘Down South’ failed to make Flag. Clapp, sent packing with a CB, has been added to the list in this edition, perhaps because Woodward now understand better how their differences came about. Missing are, for instance, Barker and Pentreath. Following what I have read here and elsewhere I find two of the promotions strange.
As explained in the original preface, Woodward chose as his ghost a civilian with no naval knowledge, and the result is a book that does not assume such in the reader; one does not have to be able to bend a bowline on the bight to understand the story. It is told with a certain self-deprecatory humour and post-hoc personal insights. Besides the actual Falklands narrative there are some interesting insights into his early career in a now-vanished steam and gunnery navy, before, in command of a submarine at 28, having vastly more responsibility than many of his contemporaries would ever have.
The 33 photographs are mostly portraits of Woodward’s immediate subordinates, mostly formal studio portraits at that, rather than illustrations of activities. The lesson for other authors is that such a portrait gallery cannot afford any exclusions, and thus of itself may exclude other material.
The book is not to be missed, both as seminal to understanding the history of the war, and for its insights into the mind of a commander in war.
Four Mr Mushroomheads.
‘One Hundred Days
’ by Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward (3rd edn, Harper Press ppbk £8.99) Click here to by from Amazon