Sunday, April 29, 2007

Myths of the Falklands: Number 1, Command

25 years ago, there was a war on, too. Everyone knows the story - fascist dictator invades forgotten colony in middle of nowhere, stalwart soldiery and jolly Jack Tar kick him out, patriotic rejoicing, vague guilt, and kajillions of words of editorialising ever since. The Falklands War remains an event that badly needs good history, but so far is surrounded by myth, either numskull patriotic or self-loathing. Note that this applies to both parties to the conflict.

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.

Logistic Blindness

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..


chris s said...

Hrm - on sending two resource ships+landing ship towards the mainland.

Was he seriously of the view that a credible feint was to threaten a land incursion on the Argentinian mainland?

Alex said...


(insert shudder here)

Dan said...

test test test
This is Dan Hardie, not the other and rather tech-smarter comments Dan...

Anonymous said...

The stuff about Woodward just smacks of making a controversy up out of whole cloth. Woodward, as you fail to mention, estimated on the day of the Argentine surrender that he could keep his (remaining) ships seaworthy for a maximum of ten days, probably less. (Source: 'A hundred days', his memoirs; but this is also backed up in most secondary sources, eg most recently Hugo Bicheno's 'Razor's Edge.) He HAD to win the war as rapidly as possible because after a short time General Winter would win it for the Argentinians. This nearly happened.

Woodward was certainly a pretty graceless individual who offended Thompson and Clapp. But the Argentinian navy never seriously interfered with Clapp's amphibious operation, and the Arg Air Force did to a much lesser degree than might have been expected. Woodward's ship were totally responsible for fighting off the Arg navy, largely responsible for the successful Air Defence (since the Army and Royal Marine SAMs were so pitifully inadequate). Woodward himself was not to blame at all for the various Arg Air Force victories: the destruction of various Type 42 frigates was down to Denis Healey's decision to skimp on 'expensive' Electronic Counter-Measures when commissioning them (source: Bicheno, following many before him) and the screw-up at Bluff Cove was a mixture of the foolishness of the Chiefs of Staff in London, the idiot commander of 5 Brigade, Wilson, and the even more foolish Welsh Guards company commander who recklessly ignored the advice of the leading Royal Marines amphibious warfare expert, Ewen Southby-Tailyour, to disembark his men.

Nul points for Harrowell on Woodward...And if you think Clausewitz always and everywhere advocated the battle of annihilation, have you actually read him? At least go through Michael Howard's short book- and never, ever trust John Keegan, who quite clearly hasn't read Clausewitz.

Alex said...

largely responsible for the successful Air Defence (since the Army and Royal Marine SAMs were so pitifully inadequate).

Er, no. Air defence of the San Carlos AOA (later TA) was a responsibility of the Amphibious Group, controlled on day 1 by Antrim, later by Broadsword and then Minerva.

Which ECM would have helped Coventry? She was sunk by iron bombs.

Anonymous said...

Harrowell: 'Er, no. Air defence of the San Carlos AOA (later TA) was a responsibility of the Amphibious Group...'
Well of course tasking was handled by one of the frigates not by Hermes, but Woodward was the man responsible for keeping a fleet more-or-less in being so that there were enough frigates and destroyers plus carrier-based aircraft to provide air defence and also deter any further surface attack.

You've also failed to mention that HMS Spartan did actually locate the Arg aircraft carrier before the attack on Belgrano but was ordered not to sink it by London (Nott claiming credit in his memoirs).

A more serious criticism of your post is that we now know that the entire Arg surface fleet turned tail and ran after the Belgrano went down. Woodward didn't and couldn't know that.

Hence he had to plan, if at all possible, to destroy all or most of the Arg surface fleet. he didn't know that the Arg navy commanders would make him a gift-wrapped present of victory in the surface war.

Re ECMs, four UK warships (2 destroyers, 2 frigates) went down, plus the Galahad and the Atlantic Conveyor. Glasgow had to return to the UK with a UXB, and my mate John, on board. I'll look up the proportion that were destroyed by iron bombs and the proportion by guided munitions, but the proposition that better ECMs would have reduced the number of British sinkings is utterly uncontroversial. And- to reiterate- we nearly damn lost that war. A couple more sunk ships, or another ten days at sea, and we would have done.

...And have you actually read Clausewitz? It's been radio silence on that one.

Anonymous said...

NB: Galahad wasn't actually sunk at the time: she was totally unusable, burnt out in the water, and I think was sunk as a war grave post-conflict. 'Destroyed', in short.

Anonymous said...

The Belgrano loss had the decisive effect of forcing the Arg Navy to return to port. Having lost a flagship they were not about to lose more warships. It would threaten the balance of power between them and Chile.

In my researches into the conflict I have begun to understand how important the role of Chile was as an existential threat to Argentina. British taskforces may come and go but Chile will always be there, an everpresent foe.

Chile and Argentina had almost gone to war in 1978 over the Beagle Channel. Shooting between naval taskforces was only prevented by the last minute intervention of Jimmy Carter and a Papal envoy. But that near-thing meant the Argentines entered the Falklands war with the perception that they were sandwiched between the Royal Navy and their old enemy, Pinochet's Chile.

It was a war the Arg Junta hadn't expected--particularly the Army and Navy who had vigorously promoted the invasion. A flaccid and discredited Britain was supposed to roll over and give up the Malvinas. But now the British were steaming down armed for bear and were fully capable of knocking the Navy's teeth out.

The problem for any would-be military dictator is that your ability to rule is dependant on maintaining the security of the state. If you can't do that, you are sunk, politically. In this regard a Junta is more brittle than a democracy. The stakes are high. You cannot rule unless you can maintain the military as a force in being. The military is the centre of gravity of a military state.

This explains many of the apparently odd decisions the Argentines made. It explains why ill-equipped conscript brigades were sent to defend the islands rather than the well-trained and equipped mountain brigades in the Andes. It explains why Grupo 8--the only Air Force unit with all-weather interceptors--was withdrawn to patrol the Chilean border after suffering losses in the early days of the air war. And it explains why the Argentine Navy never sortied in strength again after 1 May. All of these decisions were calculated to preserve the vital strength of the military.

In some regards, the forces assigned to the Malvinas/Falklands were a gamble. The Junta hoped they could inflict sufficient hurt on the British to bring them to the negotiating table. However, once the Belgrano proved how vulnerable the fleet was there would be no decisive intervention by the navy. To do so would risk breaking the back of the military, provoking an opportunist Chile into intervention and destroying the Junta's power.

In the event, the Junta miscalculated twice. Not only did it lose the islands, but that loss in itself proved sufficient to bring the Junta down.

Post-war, we saw Thatcher do everything in her power to laud Pinochet for his supporting role against the Argentines, even to the point of going to bat for him while he was under house arrest in Britain. An evil old butcher he may have been, but his role in winning the war, simply maintaining a threat on Argentina's western flank, is undeniable.

Alex said...

Dan: I know that Clausewitz also had some interesting ideas about limited war, but the message that got taken home the most was the schwerpunkt, concentration in space and time, and the decisive battle. I just find it interesting that Nelson came up with something similar at the same time independently.

Apprentice said...

How many times does it need to be said, the disaster was not at Bluff Cove, but in Port Pleasant off the settlement of Fitzroy?
It doetn't have the same ring to it but that's where it was. Bluff Cove is a shallow inlet accessible only to landing craft, not ships. Look at a map.

Anonymous said...

That was quite important to the army's decisions, IIRC. Unfortunately, if I'd said that no bugger would have known what I was talking about. There are a hell of a lot of battles that are named after somewhere that isn't very near where the action was.

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