Myth number one: Command.
The British public discourse is pretty clear - even though the government and the military missed a string of signals on the way in (we'll deal with them in the next thrilling instalment - Myth 2 - Thatcher's War?), once it happened, no-one doubted the aim. A razor focus led straight to the beaches of San Carlos Water, with the paladins Woodward, Thompson, and Moore in the lead and the utmost support of the chiefs of staff.
It's a myth, of course.
The Chiefs of Staff Committee
We're keeping the intelligence/political level for the next post, but this body performed patchily. Its Navy chief, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, and the Army's Chief of the General Staff, Lord Bramall, were notably uncertain about the aim of the operation. The RAF's Michael Beetham was keen to get involved, and kick-started the activities that led to the long-range Vulcan raids, but couldn't avoid being a secondary force. Bramall seems to have doubted whether the job could be done, or even should be done, and to have felt that it would be no bad thing if the Navy buggered it up.
From the 29th of March, when RN Fleet Headquarters was alerted that it might need to form a carrier group, through the 2nd of April when the head of amphibious warfare, Commodore Michael Clapp, and the landing force commander, Brigadier Julian Thompson, were warned-off, through the 7th, when Clapp's ships began to sail from the UK, there was no official statement of the expedition's aim. This could only come from the Chiefs, answering a political request from Whitehall. Up to the 12th of May, nine days before hitting the beach, the aim remained as follows:
Plan to land on the Falklands with a view to repossession.Obviously, nobody aims to plan. But more seriously, what did it mean? London sent a string of interpretations, suggesting variously that it might be enough to "poise" offshore, land somewhere remote and wait, or biff the fuckers. Each option had very different requirements, reflecting on the choice of landing site, the order of landing, and the logistic requirements.
Worse, the lack of an actual strategy meant that the procedure laid down for an amphibious operation was put in reverse. Rather than the land force defining its plan and passing requirements to the Navy, which then fit the loading of ships to them, London ordered simply that ships sail from Portsmouth and Devonport as quickly as they could load. Combat-loading was put off until the halt at Ascension Island, but even there, fiddling intervened. At one point, MOD signalled that the whole force must sail south six days before it actually did, which would have meant sailing directly for the beaches with the loading tables even worse than before, without the infantry having time to zero their weapons, without practising landing even once, without receiving huge amounts of stores flown out from the UK. Fortunately, the proposal was kiboshed - very fortunately, as at that point the medical plan did not exist.
Time and again, unclarity about aims and Rumsfeldesque fiddling caused trouble. Clapp and Thompson in Fearless were ordered to race ahead to Ascension to make a Top Conference, with the result that Fearless missed her rendezvous with the fleet tanker RFA Olmeda. That meant Fearless was too high in the water to launch her landing craft until the next tanker came in, and no heavy kit could be moved. Logistics is difficult.
The worst example came with the role of the 5th Infantry Brigade. Intelligence reports of the Argentine airlift of troops to the islands suggested that reinforcements were needed, but the COSs waggled for days about it. It was repeatedly suggested that the second brigade, when it came, would be used as a rear-area garrison or reliefs for the 3 Commando Brigade and its Para reinforcements. This thinking permeated - if it was a secondary role, it would be OK to use the 5th Airborne Brigade HQ and what was left after two of their Para battalions had been grabbed, plus two Guards units, rather than a complete light infantry brigade. Also, 5 Bde were promised the Chinook helicopters, so these stayed on M/V Atlantic Conveyor until she was sunk..
The key problem, really, was that the top command was hoping to get away without a real war. Or at least, without a real war for their service.
One hope for this rested on Admiral Sandy Woodward.
Woodward joins the story just because he was the admiral furthest south at the time, leading an exercise with some escorts in the western Mediterranean. The assault ships, logistics, and carriers, plus a lot more escorts, sailed from Britain under Michael Clapp, although technically they belonged to Rear-Admiral Derek Reffell.
He received directives from the chiefs of staff that required him to achieve sea and air control around the Falklands and cut communication between the mainland and the islands. These he interpreted in his own fashion. What "sea control" meant can be seen in two different ways - a Nelsonian and a Mahanian view. Nelson's original contribution to sea warfare was extremism. He didn't just win, he aimed to annihilate the enemy. Rather like his contemporary, Karl von Clausewitz, he believed that "real war" should be as much like "true war" as possible - that is to say, as chaotic and violent and terrifying as possible.
Admiral Mahan, the Edwardian strategist of the U.S. Naval Academy, looked at what the point was, and answered that the point of sea warfare was "the freedom to use the sea and the freedom to deny that use to the enemy". It didn't matter if there was no battle - indeed, it was preferable - if the overriding aim of being able to use the sea was achieved.
In the South Atlantic in 1982, the first would mean seeking a battle with the Argentine Navy and Air Force, and trying to crush them, and the second would mean trying to keep them from interfering with a landing on the Falklands. Woodward initially seems to have chosen the Nelson option, as evidenced by a variety of bad ideas he presented to Clapp and others. For example, he wanted to send a decoy group towards the mainland, including Fearless, RFA Fort Austin, RFA Resource, Invincible, and some escorts, while Clapp and Thompson and their staffs went even closer in aboard a destroyer. The idea being to force the enemy out of harbour.
He also suggested, as an alternative to landing and (if necessary) marching on the enemy, a landing on a remote island somewhere in West Falkland, or the construction of an airbase for F-4 Phantom aircraft in Clovelly Bay, West Falkland.
The last is quick to deal with - it just wasn't possible without engineering equipment and manpower they didn't have. And the second last was quite simply reckless - at this point, Intrepid still wasn't with the force, and losing Fearless and Fort Austin would have been a disaster. Equally, five out of the eight destroyers sent were hit by something or other, two being sunk. But what would have happened had Woodward beaten the Argentine Navy, the landing force being either elsewhere or on a remote island? He thought that a blockade would force them to give up, but then, he was never able to stop them sending a C-130 supply run every night of the war. And this required time - but the best estimates for how long the carriers could sustain all-out operations were around 60 days, as the weather turned nastier and men and machines wore out.
Further, though, the whole argument assumed that the Argentine Air Force would turn up. With no threat to overturn their strategic success, there would have been no reason for them to hurl themselves at Woodward's ships - they would have controlled the operational tempo. And eventually, anything could happen - they might get lucky and hit a carrier, they might start sinking tankers, or the UK might fall out with either the US or Europe.
Was Woodward suffering from Trafalgar syndrome, the belief that a decisive fleet action would win the war? Possibly. His behaviour towards the amphibious force suggests so, but even if he was, it might not have been so deluded. Between the 30th of April and the 2nd May, the two navies came very close to a fleet action, with three Argentine groups manoeuvring about the Task Force's perimeter. The last contact the British had with the Argentine carrier group was on the morning of the 30th when a Sea Harrier picked up their radar transmissions, but after this moment there was no more information for some time. But the other side located Woodward's carriers on the 31st after a (risky) reconnaissance flight by a Grumman Tracker. They were now in a position to launch an air strike, and presumably send in the northern surface-attack group with its Exocet ships behind the jets.
However, the Argentine command didn't launch that evening, and the wind changed on the next day. They therefore called off the attack and ordered the fleet to rendezvous with its tankers west of the Falklands before seeking another opportunity. But on the way, the General Belgrano was sunk, which caused everyone to scratch the tanker RV and return to home waters at best speed. It's hard to see exactly what would have happened had the fleets engaged - the British had two small carriers to one bigger Argentine one and 10 escorts to 9, but only 5 of the British ships (T-21, T-22, or Leander class frigates, and County class DLGs) had surface-to-surface missiles compared to 8 Argentine SSM ships. The wildcard would have been the British submarines, providing that HMS Spartan could catch up in time (she had not found the enemy carrier group as intended).
It would have been a bloody business, and might have ended up as a Nelsonian thrashing, but it seems unlikely that even a devastating British victory would have come without seriously weakening the carrier group - perhaps losing a carrier. Which would have posed the question - what now? Blockade was, as discussed, imperfect and could anyway not be sustained long enough to win. Could a weakened carrier group have provided enough air cover for the amphibious group? It seems impossible, given the close-run thing it was with two carriers.
Once COMAW and company arrived, Woodward's role changed dramatically. At last, he had a clear aim, which was (however much he disliked it) to support the amphibians by providing combat air patrols and strikes and looking after the transport holding area out at sea. He discharged this well, taking the (mildly controversial) decision to keep the carriers well to the east. Again, the lack of clear strategic analysis had nearly led him to take an appalling risk, but the return of clarity led him back to a sensible and conservative policy.
This afflicted a string of important people, kicking off with Lewin in MOD Main Building and moving south. Woodward doesn't seem ever to have grasped the problem, complaining that the amphibious group had offloaded nearly one ton of stores per man and that must surely be enough. In fact, 3 Commando Brigade had 4,500 tons of stuff in their War Maintenance Reserve, roughly a ton per man, but this doesn't include their first- and second-line loadout, weapons, or vehicles. The order from London on the 26th to "move out" was based on the assumption that everyone was being terribly slow, but the NATO Northern Flank plans had assumed eight days for a smaller force to land through an operational port with host-nation air cover.
In fact, the landing craft and choppers managed to unload ammunition from the P&O Ferrymasters truck ferry M/V Elk at a rate of 80 tons an hour, which would be good going for breakbulk dry cargo handling in a real port. Similarly, Brigadier Tony Wilson of 5 Brigade and Major-General Jeremy Moore of division HQ spent their trip south on the QE2 planning in splendid isolation from either Sandy Woodward or Michael Clapp, whose ships and aircraft they were, or Julian Thompson, whose logistics regiment it was (among many other things, 5 didn't have its own logistics support and consumed 3 Bde resources). Wilson believed Moore had promised him all available helicopters to get his brigade forward, although Moore had no helicopters to promise and there was no way such a thing could happen in the light of the offload, artillery, and medical requirements.
With his logistics outsourced to the Navy, Wilson was unfortunately free to start his own war by pushing men forward from the Goose Green area to Bluff Cove in his liaison helicopter, thus creating an advance along the south coast that the Navy and Marine planners had ruled out as logistically difficult to support, needless, and risky. The confusion about strategic aims that had started at the top led to the tactical and operational mistakes that led to the disaster at Bluff Cove.
In the next post in this series, coming soon, we'll deal with the top itself, or rather, herself. Stand by for Myth Two: Thatcher's War..