A military historian, Brian Bond, looks at the Falklands war
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 5 No. 6 · 1 April 1983
SIR: I do not mind being called a ‘knave in the Parliamentary pack’ by Brian Bond in his review of One Man’s Falklands (LRB, 3 March). I do mind a ‘military historian’s’ misconceptions.
My Parliamentary friends and I did not ‘snipe’. We conducted a full-blooded Parliamentary Opposition to the dispatch of the Task Force, which went largely unreported until the London Review of Books Editor, Karl Miller, asked me for and printed a full, serious article outlining the dissenters’ case, and until Panorama’s team, appalled by the way we had been treated by other sectors of the BBC, put on ‘Traitorama’ on 10 May, when Crouch, Foulkes, Meyer and I – four mild-mannered and douce MPs – voiced rational objections to the South Atlantic War.
At no time did I accuse my country of warmongering and aggression. On 2 April, many thousands of my constituents, good and generally well-informed people, would have been hard-pressed to say where exactly the Falkland Islands were. This accusation is not even directed at the Conservative Party, but at Mrs Margaret Hilda Thatcher and her immediate entourage.
‘Even Michael Foot’ was obliged to dismiss me. Yes. But I repeat what I said to him, at the sacking interview. ‘Michael, the issue is not my future – it’s about yours, Michael.’ Had he opposed the dispatch of the Task Force (and I pleaded with him before he spoke on 3 April), who now supposes that we should be subjected to daily doubts about his leadership? It is simply tragic.
If, as Bond says, the Falklanders are manifestly British, is not the answer, for those who above all else want to be British, to come and live in Britain – where I would have deemed them as first-class citizens under the British Nationality Acts?
I do not doubt the ‘oppressive nature of the regime’ – though Galtieri was showing signs of being better than Viola or Videla. But Brian Bond must know perfectly well that those Falklanders who elected to stay would have joined the privileged Anglo-Argentine community, or been like the Welsh-speaking, rugby-playing Welsh communities of Southern Patagonia, and not the Disappeared Ones.
‘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.’ It’s not me, but Bond who is wrong. The Belgrano was not, as he claims, ‘heading towards elements of the Task Force’. By Parliamentary Question, on the Government’s own admission, Belgrano was on a 280-degree course at the time she was sunk, heading towards the entrace to the Straits of Magellan, and her home port of Ushuaia. She was under orders to return from Admiral Inaya – for which he is publicly and bitterly accused of treachery by the pilots of the Aviacon Naval. Moreover, since the British, with the help of the Americans, had broken the Argentinian codes (relatively unsophisticated), Thatcher and Lewin jolly well knew that Belgrano had been ordered back, as had the Army, in the belief that the Peruvian/American proposals for withdrawal of all forces, Argentinian and British, would be accepted. Mrs Thatcher would not have any truck with such proposals on account of domestic politics here in Britain. But then Brian Bond has not grasped the central fact that for Mrs Thatcher, the conflict was never about the rights, views, paramount or otherwise, of the Falklanders: it was about the injured political pride which sent the Fleet, and about retaining the leadership of the Conservative Party, with the support of an ignorant and disgraceful press.
Bond concludes by saying that the Argentines are unlikely to make the same mistake again for a very long time. Maybe or maybe not. People who continue to scour the world for Exocets are going to keep the pressure up. The costs soar. Financial cuts devastate the Health Service, Housing, Education and much else. What would Brian Bond do if the nation which is about to spend £880,000,000 on Port Stanley Airport decided that it had to cut yet more university departments – even that of War Studies, in King’s College, London?
House of Commons, London SW1
Vol. 5 No. 7 · 21 April 1983
SIR: I do not share Mr Tam Dalyell’s political outlook (Letters, 1 April) and I did not like the polemical tone of One Man’s Falklands. I thought I expressed my reactions to the book rather mildly but I did not expect him to be pleased by what I wrote: indeed I should have been disappointed if he had been. His hostility to the Government, and to the Prime Minister in particular, is unlikely to be altered by my contrary views, but he needs to be reminded that he was in a small minority in opposing the recovery of the Falklands by force following Argentina’s blatant aggression and refusal to withdraw without a definite British concession on sovereignty. It is far from clear to me that Falklanders who opted to remain under Argentinian rule ‘would have joined the privileged Anglo-Argentine community’. There was certainly no evidence of a conciliatory or even a civilised attitude during the brief period of Argentine occupation.
I cannot claim any inside information on the sinking of the General Belgrano, but the most authoritative account so far published of this episode, The Battle for the Falklands (pp. 147-150) by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins (reviewed by Mr Dalyell in LRB, Vol. 5, No 4), supports my interpretation rather than Mr Dalyell’s: i.e. the request to attack the General Belgrano originated with the Royal Navy and was approved by the Cabinet on operational grounds rather than as a deliberate ploy to sabotage negotiations.
No one would deny that the short-term costs of improving the Falklands’ defences are formidable but I do not share Mr Dalyell’s pessimism about Argentina sustaining an indefinite military threat. As for the financial future of the Department of War Studies and King’s College, London generally, I trust it will be the responsibility of politicians more truly representative of national sentiments than Mr Dalyell.
Department of War Studies, King’s College, London
Vol. 5 No. 8 · 5 May 1983
SIR: The account offered by Mr Tam Dalyell MP (Letters, 1 April) of the Falklands crisis, which cheerfully awards the entire credit for repossessing the islands to Mrs Thatcher, is the very myth that the Conservative Party is now busy trying to pass off on the nation: that if any other party had been in office, the victory would never have happened at all. The Tories have decided to wrap themselves in a Union Jack, as in 1945, if only to distract attention from the failures of their domestic policies. He is perpetuating bad history as well as playing the Conservatives’ game for them. The task force was dispatched in April 1982 because Parliament, including the Labour and Alliance leaderships, publicly demanded it. What prime minister on earth could have denied a House of Commons so nearly unanimous? Mr Dalyell produces no evidence that any other party leader at Number Ten would have behaved otherwise, and the private conversation he permits himself to quote with the Leader of the Opposition demonstrates yet again how much common purpose there was at that time across the floor of the House. Mr Dalyell tells us he does not doubt the oppressive nature of the Argentine regime, but argues that ‘those Falklanders who elected to stay would have joined the privileged Anglo-Argentine community.’ The world will note with attention this instance, on the part of a Labour MP, of socialist realism, and its characteristic implication that tyranny is all right if you can do well out of it.
St John’s College, Cambridge