Keeping the peace

E.S. Turner

  • March to the South Atlantic: 42 Commando Royal Marines in the Falklands War by Nick Vaux and Max Hastings
    Buchan and Enright, 261 pp, £11.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 907675 56 5
  • Further Particulars: Consequences of an Edwardian Boyhood by C.H. Rolph
    Oxford, 231 pp, £12.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 19 211790 4

The French Marshal MacMahon said: ‘I shall remove from my promotion list any officer whose name I have seen on the cover of a book.’ He spoke for high commanders everywhere. ‘Damn your writing, mind your fighting’ was the snub likely to greet a British officer with literary pretensions. The Duke of Cambridge opposed the founding of the Army Journal and the Cavalry Journal on the grounds that nothing but indiscipline could result from allowing serving officers to discuss their profession in print. These scribbling fellows could be ruthless self-advertisers, like Churchill and Baden-Powell. There was nothing wrong with an officer giving himself a manly pseudonym and writing about pig-sticking in Blackwood’s – or, of course, with a general writing his memoirs on retirement. Today serving officers appear to suffer no untoward restraints. Nick Vaux, who led 42 Commando Royal Marines in the Falklands, waited only for his brigadier, Julian Thompson, to write No Picnic before weighing in with March to the South Atlantic.

Vaux is now a general. He writes lucidly, robustly, as befits a soldier, but is not ashamed to reveal his inner feelings (or to mention how, in a scramble up the slopes of Ascension, he and a fellow officer picked posies for two women officers aboard Canberra). His book is a detailed account of 42 Commando’s progress from Plymouth to Port Stanley, immediately after returning from winter training in North Norway. At the age of 46 he was responsible for the lives of six hundred-odd men whose average age was below 20. It was his first martial adventure since Suez, in which he was a 20-year-old subaltern, and since then the weapons and communications had advanced unrecognisably.

As a troopship, Canberra proved to be a cushy bit of STUFT (Shipping Taken Up From Trade), but Vaux’s task was to keep his men lean and mean. If it had to be done by belting out boisterous songs ‘in the most appalling taste’ about the ‘Spics’ in the Malvinas, well and good: but the men sang those last-night-of-the-Proms songs as well. ‘The time had come to stimulate rather than suppress the potential for violence that simmers within élite forces.’ Before they set off for their two weeks’ ordeal in the mountains, the men saw what Exocet missiles could do, and some of them, at Goose Green, had glimpsed what dead comrades look like.

Their commanding officer, who admits to being impatient and irascible, had a physical problem. Thanks to all that steeplechasing and skiing, his back was liable to seize up and the last thing he wanted was to become a ‘casevac’. He nearly became a corpse in an inadvertent ambush by our own troops on Mount Kent, but the regimental sergeant-major ‘averted disaster, as RSMs so often do’. He was also very conscious that the age-gap between himself and the Commando HQ was more than ten years. ‘They needed to have confidence in my judgment, confidence which could not be risked by my revealing too many reservations, or seeking too much reassurance.’ At a critical stage the colonel had the opportunity to pull back his hungry, half-frozen men to rest, at risk of missing the chance ‘to fight a proper battle’ – a battle that might squander young lives. ‘Withdrawal smelt of failure, and spelt obscurity.’ The Commando was not a force to relish obscurity, so it was not pulled back.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in