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.

Though a large part of the White Paper is taken up with technological lessons, it is careful to stress that the war was in many ways unique and is not necessarily a safe guide to requirements within Nato. Indeed, the campaign was nostalgically reminiscent of those limited wars in which the traditional virtues of firm resolve, flexibility of forces, equipment and tactics, and well-trained officers and men, were at a premium. Thus the most important ‘lesson’ was simply to reaffirm the superiority of a professional, volunteer, highly-trained task force as exemplified by the landing at San Carlos, the taking of Goose Green against superior numbers, the night attack on the heights around Port Stanley, and the outstanding performance of the Harrier and helicopter pilots.

Though technical shortcomings – such as the need for better airborne early warning and less inflammable material on the frigates – have been generally admitted, a great deal depended on the conditions, skills of the users and the counter-measures available to the enemy. In short, the Falklands experience should correct extreme notions of electronic battlefields where human qualities are redundant and all can be explained by cybernetics. To take just a few examples, the Harriers performed excellently but they were often matched against enemy aircraft at their extreme range and carried insufficient fuel to allow manoeuvre. Exocet missiles attained notoriety but their success was limited: Sheffield was crippled despite a failure of the Exocet warhead and Atlantic Conveyor was probably the victim of a diversion. The threat posed by the Exocet was appreciated before operations began and counter-measures were quickly introduced. For the future the Sea Wolf system should be effective in all weathers against low-level missiles, and in addition the Nimrod AEW Mark 3 should be deployed in the East Atlantic for 1984. In the Falklands new radar installations and RAF Phantoms already provide early warning against a renewed attack. In some cases, obsolescent weapons still proved effective against aircraft: for example, a 4.5 inch gun downed a Skyhawk. In general, technical experience was either ambiguous or unsurprising. Submarines proved their lethalness (though Tam Dalyell blurs the vital distinction between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines); surface ships were shown to be terribly vulnerable to determined air attacks, but also put up an impressive defence. However, the Argentinian air force was not particularly up-to-date, nor really designed for an anti-shipping role.

The most interesting aspect of the White Paper is its admission that the Falklands experience has prompted at least a half-turn on the intended naval reductions. Henceforth, it announces, two carriers should be available for deployment at short notice, so that a third must be retained in reserve. Furthermore Invincible will not, after all, be sold. Contrary to previous plans to place up to four ships in the standby squadron, an increase is promised in front-line frigates and destroyers. Naval experts remain sceptical about the exact number of destroyers to be retained in the running Fleet, but according to the White Paper: ‘Front-line numbers will be about 55 at 1 April 1983 and 1984.’

At this point enter Mr Keith Speed with an unrepentant and still unsatisfied ‘I told you so’. In May 1981 he was dismissed as Navy Minister (the last, as it turned out) for opposing Mr Nott’s proposed naval reductions at a time of rapidly expanding Soviet naval power and influence. Mr Speed, a former naval officer and an avowed navalist, finds his paragon in Admiral Gorshkov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy since 1956. He argues forcefully that Britain must promptly redress the decline in all the components of maritime power – naval and merchant shipping, fishing and research, ship-building and ports – if she is to protect her vital interests. He charts a startling decline between 1966 and 1982: aircraft-carriers reduced from five to one, frigates from 67 to 47, destroyers from 20 to 12, and naval manpower from 98,000 to 65,000. Mr Speed is especially indignant about the proposed closures of Chatham and Gibraltar dockyards and the drastic run-down of Portsmouth. He indicts the Government for ‘a lack of corporate approach’, pointing out (in a scenario worthy of Yes, Minister) that huge amounts will be spent on Trident, the Navy will suffer crippling losses and the taxpayer will be no better-off – but the Ministry of Defence will be able to show substantial savings. Mr Speed has not wholly concealed his dislike of Mr Nott: the Falklands war has, he asserts, discredited the latter’s ‘cost accountancy’ philosophy. In a mordant phrase for an ex-minister, he accuses his former colleagues of ‘passing “O level” economics but failing “A level” history’.

Mr Speed is a vigorous polemicist and he can at least claim to have been right before as well as after the event. He makes an eloquent case not just for a bigger and better Navy but for a greater understanding of the implications of contemporary maritime power: ‘We have a highly-developed island economy, world-wide interests and major national resources lying under the seas around us, and depredations in the strength of the Royal Navy must cease now if we are to continue to be adequately protected.’ Mr Speed is on more controversial ground in his numerous hints that Britain should give less emphasis to her continental role in Nato and more to reviving a naval capability in the wider world. He refers scathingly to a preponderance of Napoleons in some of the upper reaches of British strategic thinking, and suggests we consider local maritime alliances with various countries including Spain, Kenya, Oman, the Gulf Straits and Singapore. He will therefore hardly be satisfied by the White Paper’s modest proposals for forces capable of operating outside Nato, nor mollified by its plaintive admission: ‘We should like to have done more in this area but there has been little margin within the defence programme for additions of this kind in recent years.’ The proposals amount to a strengthening of Fifth Infantry Brigade in order to enhance its ‘out of area’ capabilities. An Army Air Corps squadron and Hercules transport aircraft will improve capabilities in various operational conditions. Two assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid, are to be retained in service. In principle, Mr Speed and his supporters have a strong case. Soviet expansion is not confined to the Baltic and the North Sea: rather it is likely to pose an increasing threat outside the Nato area. But, given Britain’s economic plight and the additional burden of defending the Falklands for an indefinite period, it is hard to see how Mr Speed’s requirements for a considerable naval expansion could be achieved without a dangerous weakening of her European and North Atlantic roles.

Tam Dalyell is a critic of the Government from a very different standpoint. He is the knave in the Parliamentary pack in a radical tradition going back at least to the Napoleonic wars. It testifies to the strength of a democracy – at least in limited wars – that it can tolerate constant sniping from dissenters like Mr Dalyell, who sympathises with the enemy’s political case and accuses his own country of warmongering and aggression. He opposed the dispatch of the task force and clashed with his own Party spokesmen in arguing that it should be turned back in order to save General Galtieri’s face. Even Michael Foot, however, was obliged to dismiss Mr Dalyell from his shadow ministerial post for forcing a division of the House on the Falklands issue on 20 May 1982. One Man’s Falklands is frankly polemical: it makes some valid criticisms but so overstates its case that it is unlikely to make many converts. For example, Mr Dalyell identifies himself with the Argentinian view that this is a question of de-colonisation, ignoring the fact that the Falklanders are manifestly British and have no wish to be freed from imperial oppression. On his own showing, the Government’s fumbling attempt to escape from its dilemma in 1980 by conceding sovereignty with a long-term lease-back was denounced by spokesmen from all the major parties. He is also honest enough to admit that he would have opposed any precautionary British naval movements before the invasion as a provocation. More seriously, he brushes aside the Junta’s flagrant aggression and glibly excuses the oppressive nature of the regime. He exaggerates the prospects for a negotiated settlement after the invasion and roundly accuses Mrs Thatcher of deliberately sabotaging the peace efforts of Mr Haig and Sir Anthony Parsons. In a letter published in the Daily Telegraph on 10 January 1983 he alleged that the Prime Minister had ‘spurned an honourable peace and for her own political purposes opted for a military solution’. Central to Mr Dalyell’s thesis that Mrs Thatcher was the aggressor was the sinking of the General Belgrano. On this point he is prejudiced and wrong. Though just outside the 200-mile exclusion zone, the cruiser General Belgrano, equipped with modern missiles and accompanied by two destroyers, was heading towards elements of the task force on something other than a good-will mission. The order to attack it originated with the naval command, not in Whitehall. This was a fleeting opportunity for the submarine Conqueror, which was armed with unsophisticated torpedoes. If the chance had not been seized, the consequences for the task force might have been serious. In the event, the sinking probably had the beneficial effect of deterring the Argentinian surface warships from playing an active part in the war. Since Tam Dalyell portrays Britain as the aggressor, he not surprisingly ignores the consideration that for those forced to make a tremendous military effort, the most important objective is to win. Whether such ruthlessness will permanently alienate the whole of Latin America remains to be seen; even during hostilities Chile, for one, was markedly unsympathetic towards Argentina. Tam Dalyell will not make many friends by arguing that the British people have already forgotten their war dead of the 1940s, and will soon neglect the wounded heroes of the Falklands. On the excessive cost of defending the Falklands in the future, he seems unduly pessimistic. If the chief cause of the conflict was the Argentines’ belief that Britain would be unwilling or unable to recover the islands, they are unlikely to make the same mistake again for a very long time indeed.

Though War in the Falklands provides a concise and lively narrative text, it is essentially a superb pictorial record of the war by the Sunday Express Magazine team. In format, it resembles the traditional illustrated war books from the high noon of Empire, but in fact it covers every aspect of the conflict with a minimum of jingoism (except for the huge Union Jack on the cover) or sentimentality. The rugged grandeur of South Georgia and the Falklands is magnificently captured, particularly in the photos of the tiny bright red Endurance amidst the pack ice, and the rendezvous of QE2 and Canberra in Grytviken harbour. There is a single dramatic close-up photo of the stricken Sir Galahad taken by a helicopter pilot, and another which brings out the complexity of war: boats bringing the wounded ashore while soldiers are laughing in the foreground. Among many disturbing illustrations which stay in the mind is ‘A scene from Dante as the Argentine troops moved out of Stanley huddle on the road to the airport, trying to keep warm by burning any rubbish they can find. The Antarctic wind scythed in over the water and it was remarkable nobody died of exposure.’

Armed Forces and the Welfare Societies has an important theme in the likely effects of financial pressure and social opposition on the character and efficiency of the British, American, Dutch, Swedish and German armies in the 1980s, but its presentation is far from gripping. One wonders if political scientists have to undergo special training in order to write so unappealingly. For the most part, the contributors scrupulously avoid any expression of personal opinion, or any predictions, and take refuge in jargon, abstruse statistics and banal generalities. The essay on Britain is mainly concerned with defence expenditure but, written before the Falklands crisis, it fails to include the option now facing the Government: namely, of increased expenditure and a considerable additional commitment. There are more interesting nuggets to be quarried in the essay on ‘The German Case’, which does concern itself with the broader issues of the Bundeswehr’s place in society. In analysing conscripts’ motivation it has some interesting statistics on disciplinary cases and military punishments – both on the decline. Bundeswehr soldiers charged with absence without leave and desertion declined from 11,395 in 1974 to 6,680 in 1978. But over the same period suicide attempts increased from 815 to 1163. It is shown that the percentage of Catholic officers has been rising steadily and that Catholics are represented in the Armed Forces to a larger extent than in the population as a whole. A major cause of this trend is said to be the much greater need for personnel with a higher level of education. The service officer now has a comparatively low social status in the eyes of the German public, being placed after the following ‘top ten’: physician, prosecuting attorney, high-school teacher, police inspector, civil servant, assistant professor, clergyman, major (sic), forest ranger and librarian. Unfortunately the author muffles what seemed likely to be a critical conclusion by carefully balancing pessimistic and optimistic assessments of the next decade.

The most forthright and informative essay concerns ‘the Swedish Model’, where military unions have the right to strike and hours of work have been regulated. Sweden has had to make serious compromises between the needs of defence and the resources of society, but seems to have done so without the friction perplexing civil-military relations in most of the countries examined here. This is because Sweden is a genuine nation in arms dependent on a citizen militia and with virtually no standing army. The wartime units are composed almost entirely of non-professionals: thus in a rifle company of 150 men there are rarely more than three regulars. As nearly all able-bodied men have to serve – and the vast majority do so willingly – regiments really do represent a cross-section of social groups. ‘Hence social relations and attitudes in the Swedish army reflect, more than in most other countries, those of the society as a whole.’ General Sir John Hackett has suggested (Sunday Times, 20 June 1982) that Britain’s military success in the Falklands will probably have an encouraging influence on Sweden’s attitude to neutrality – in the face of increasing Soviet pressure, evident in recent submarine incidents. But the author of this essay is rather pessimistic about the immediate future of the Swedish forces, not least because Sweden is facing a crisis in her once flourishing armaments industry. The editor of this volume furnishes a postscript which stresses that conscript systems are likely to be under increasing strain in the 1980s from a combination of declining available manpower, social opposition to military service, and the decreasing value of conscripts in the more technologically advanced military organisations. Nato countries dependent on conscription may be disturbed by these predictions but the British Armed Forces and defence pundits will be confirmed in the view that their professional, all-volunteer system is the right one. The Argentinians would undoubtedly have fared better in the Falklands had they left their conscripts at home, while for Britain the reconquest would surely have been politically as well as militarily inconceivable with conscript forces.