A military historian, Brian Bond, looks at the Falklands war

Brian Bond

  • The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons
    HMSO, 46 pp, £3.95, December 1982
  • Sea Change by Keith Speed
    Ashgrove Press, 194 pp, £7.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 906798 20 5
  • One Man’s Falklands by Tam Dalyell
    Cecil Woolf, 144 pp, £5.50, December 1982, ISBN 0 900821 65 5
  • War in the Falklands: The Campaign in Pictures
    Weidenfeld, 154 pp, £7.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 297 78202 9
  • Armed Forces and the Welfare Societies: Challenges in the 1980s edited by Gwyn Harries-Jenkins
    Macmillan, 281 pp, £20.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 333 33542 2

A recent bibliographical review of the Spanish Armada concluded that at last the evidence available permitted definitive judgments on the episode from both sides. Such a long interval may be comforting to scholars but it will clearly not do for journalists, politicians and, above all, defence experts who are eager to derive immediate lessons from such an unexpected but valuable proving ground as the Falklands war. Still, it is as well to remember that, despite the outpouring of instant histories, polemics and reports, there is still quite a lot we do not know. Future historians will have to reconstruct the course of political and strategic decision-making on the Argentinian side, but it is hard to believe that any startling revelations will occur. On the British side, however, we shall presumably learn much more about the activities of the SAS and SBS (particularly on the mainland), the amount of political interference in operational decisions, and the precise nature of the supplies, weapons and intelligence provided by the United States. In the meantime, the Defence White Paper presents a concise summary of the main lessons of the campaign.

It is easy in retrospect to be blasé about the astonishing achievement in mounting the operation at all, and critics of the proposed naval reductions have been quick to point out that even a few months later it might not have been possible. As it was, the emergency prompted admirable co-operation between the Services, the Merchant Navy, the Royal Dockyards and the commercial ports. The task force had to be improvised virtually over a weekend and provisioned for at least three months at sea. Eventually over one hundred ships were deployed, including 44 warships, 22 from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and 45 merchant ships whose civilian crews were all volunteers. Already, though less than a year has passed, an imaginative effort is required to recall the tension and uncertainty that characterised the three-week interval before the task force was in a position to attempt a landing. In some respects this enforced delay was to Britain’s advantage, notably in allowing additional shipping to be commandeered and adapted, and also in demonstrating that the invaders had no intention of leaving without a British concession on sovereignty. Critics of the Government’s determination to recover control of the Falklands have been inclined to underplay the fact that every day that passed should have added to the invaders’ great defensive advantage, particularly as a prolonged naval blockade was ruled out by approaching winter. In the event, great risks were taken and the outcome was a close-run thing, for all the decisiveness of the eventual victory. Despite its bravery and self-sacrifice, the Argentinian air force failed to exploit its opportunities against the carriers and liners, and at San Carlos – as General Moore admitted – there could have been a disaster had the enemy concentrated on the landing craft rather than the escorts. General Menendez also committed a cardinal error in not making an all-out effort to smash the beachhead in the first vulnerable hours. Arguably, he could also have caused acute supply problems for our land forces by prolonging the defence of the high ground around Port Stanley, but perhaps by that stage demoralisation had gone too far.

Given all the difficulties posed by the vast distance, appalling climate and a numerically superior enemy in command of the islands, given also, as the House of Commons decided, that the campaign had to be undertaken, the casualties and losses do not seem excessive. In all, 255 task-force lives were lost in the operation. A further 777 were injured but, pace Tarn Dalyell, who has already asked more than three hundred Parliamentary questions about the war, the majority were not ‘maimed for life’: indeed, seven hundred are said to be fully employed. Some thirty-four aircraft were lost (including nine helicopters aboard Atlantic Conveyor) as against an estimated enemy loss of 117. Britain’s ship losses comprised: Sheffield, Ardent, Antelope, Coventry, Sir Galahad and Atlantic Conveyor. It was hoped to salvage and repair Sir Tristram, but this now looks doubtful. Public attention has understandably focused on the tragic losses and especially on those apparently resulting from errors of judgment, such as the destruction of Sheffield and the calamity at Fitzroy Bay. But these need to be kept in perspective in relation to the difficulties and the size of the forces involved. It is all too easy for critics to demand the ends while deploring the necessary means.

The White Paper stresses that, valuable though the Falklands campaign was for logistical and other aspects of operations outside the Nato area, it has not changed the Government’s strategic priorities, which all relate to the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Substantially more resources will be devoted to defence than had previously been planned. The Government undertakes to meet the cost of the war and of the replacement of ships and other equipment lost without drawing on the additional 3 per cent by which the defence budget is planned to grow over the period 1983-1986.

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