Saturday, May 05, 2007

Myths of the Falklands 2: Thatcher's War

The Falklands War represents a big part of the Thatcher mythos, to the extent that it's become part of the media's operational code that you can't divide the two. This is founded on a couple of facts, and more myths. The fact is that it undoubtedly helped her win re-election from a fairly ugly starting point. (The counterfact is that, had it gone the other way, as was possible, she would almost certainly have been doomed.)

The myths, though, are much more productive. The first one is that the war represented a personal achievement for Margaret Thatcher, that her strength of purpose and decisions were crucial to success. The second is that the war somehow represented Thatcherism, for good or ill depending on partisan allegiance.

The official myth of Thatcher begins with the notion, as retailed in her memoirs, that the invasion came as a total surprise and no power on earth could prevent it. But, on the 2nd April, 1982, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, came in full uniform to an emergency inner cabinet and briefed that a carrier group could sail within 48 hours. Thatcher, inspired, swept aside the objections of pitiful wets to order the sinking of the Belgrano and win the war, with the vital support of the Americans.

It's a myth. As Brian Barder points out, it is simply not true that "No one predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance". Regular intelligence warnings had arrived for months, the South Georgia crisis had arisen, and by the 2nd of April, the Royal Navy had been increasing its readiness state for several days. On the 26th of March, when a specific intelligence warning from a source in Argentina arrived, the first shipping movements had already begun (RFAs Greenleaf and Fort Austin being set in motion south). The key value was the time it took for a Valiant or Swiftsure-class submarine to sail south at maximum speed - Spartan made it in a week and a half, sailing on the 27th March. To put it another way, sailing the sub on the 23rd would have put her in Falklands waters on invasion day. On the 20th of March, the government ordered Endurance to South Georgia with Lieutenant Keith Mills's marines aboard.

It was the obvious moment to take action, but the Thatcher cabinet was torn between the will to wound and the fear to strike. The Argentine admiral in command, Rear-Admiral Allara, had always assumed that the presence of a submarine would kibosh the operation. Unlike in 1977, when the Callaghan government deployed HMS Dreadnought, the chance was passed up. The government kept dickering, while the Navy staffs made quiet preparations.

On the 29th of March, Fleet HQ at Northwood warned off the carriers and Sandy Woodward's escort group in the Mediterranean, whilst setting up a 24-hour operations watch for the South Atlantic. The military must accept a little criticism here - "order, counterorder, disorder" was rife, with 40 Commando, Royal Marines, being stood-to for the South Atlantic with no word of how to get there, stood down, stood to again, and stood down again without anyone bothering to tell 3 Commando Brigade or Mike Clapp's amphibious-warfare HQ about it.

Finally, the government took charge once the damage was done. But, as we discussed in Myth 1, it was far from clear about what it wanted. Northwood didn't issue a clear aim until the 12th of May, probably because it didn't have one itself. This begs the question of whether the Chiefs of Staff had one, which begs the question of what the government thought it was doing. (It also reflects badly on the Chiefs that they didn't insist on a clear grand strategy, or come up with one themselves.)

Decisive? Hardly. But the Thatcher government did at least avoid some of the possible traps. In April and early May, there was a lot of military quackery abroad, with wild suggestions of "making a bang in the South Atlantic" (as Michael Rose liked to say) by crash-landing Hercules aircraft full of SAS onto the Stanley airfield in order the Argentine commander, or something, or of launching a Vulcan raid on Buenos Aires, or (for Christ's sake) blowing up the Exocet plant in Toulouse, despite the fact the French intelligence services were helping to prevent any more of the missiles reaching Argentina. Fortunately, they built on the rock and not upon the sand.

Then there was the temptation of relying on the Americans, who had little interest in seeing their pet dictator walloped, or of grabbing for a compromise solution. There was the US offer of the loan of an aircraft carrier to be manned by the Royal Navy, which given the timescales involved can only realistically have been a white elephant intended to scupper the expedition. (Imagine all that requalification for the 3,000 ratings involved, on equipment never seen before in the RN.)

Whatever judgment is drawn on Thatcher should be tempered by the fact she could rely on some outstanding civil servants, specifically Sir Frank Cooper as MOD Permanent Secretary and Sir John Hunt as Cabinet Secretary, although the shaky performance of the Chiefs counterweighs this. Whatever, it's pretty clear she did better than Tony Blair or John Major would have, but not as well as Jim Callaghan, who scored the jackpot by heading off the war in the first place.

On the second, broader topic, a detailed consideration shows that to win the war, Thatcher had to rely on a whole swath of institutions and cultures she had not the slightest regard for. Early on, the MOD(Navy) called in the chief executive of P&0, acting for the whole shipping industry, and the National Union of Seamen, to thrash out the conditions under which merchant ships and their crews would serve. It was concluded that they would get a 150 per cent bonus and stay under their normal discipline until action was joined. A less Thatcherite solution is hard to imagine.

Hence, the scene south of Ascension, where Atlantic Conveyor drew alongside the fleet tanker RFA Tidepool to refuel underway. This had of course never been imagined for the big container ship. As the transfer was going on, Soviet Tu-95 Bear reconnaissance planes flew overhead several times to take photos. The Navy, the RFA, and her master hoped the Russians would show the images to someone who would spot the key detail - Atlantic Conveyor was the leader, with the fleet tanker keeping station on her, not the other way around.

Similarly, just to get started, Devonport Dockyard had to turn around RFA Stromness, which they had just completed stripping of stores and equipment before putting her in mothballs. This had taken weeks, but she was readied for sea and loaded with a huge range of supplies (a portable fuel-handling terminal, thousands of feet of aluminium runway planking) and several hundred Marines within days. The BLACK BUCK Vulcan raids relied, as the V-bombers always had done, on direct interworking between the engineering wings and the aerospace industry.

It's fair to say, I think, that Margaret Thatcher cared politically for nothing less than the merchant fleet, the unions, shipwrights, or for that matter, the Navy. A lot of military people look back to her with nostalgia, but then, by definition they were younger then. And, with the exception of the Falklands, it wasn't a bad time to be a soldier - overseas postings were either sunny (Belize, Hong Kong, Cyprus) or dull but comfortable, like the vast bulk of the army's bases in Northern Germany, with good beer, kebabs, and duty-free perks. And very little action.

No, this was more like the death ride of the post-war consensus. Some people, like Fort Austin's captain Sam Dunlop, had done the whole of the second world war.

None of this prevented the media, and Thatcher's spin doctors, from rolling the whole thing into the Thatcher myth - the photos of her riding a tank during Exercise LIONHEART-84, endless pompous blather. Meanwhile, the merchant navy vanished, as did the shipyards, BAE converted itself into a machine focused on Saudi shenanigans, and the military didn't lay down another amphibious ship until Ocean in 1995.


Anonymous said...

Interesting points but you are aware of course that what really started this whole thing off was the decision to remove a survey vessel from the South Atlantaic and the Argentines took this as a hint that the UK was no longer interested in the area? Or is this what you mean by the South Georgia event?

Anonymous said...

Great post. Of course the upshot of all this is having unsuitable warships patrol the Shat-al-arab waterway, the two ships that could could be excellent patrol ships were sold by Maggie to the Irish Govt.

Martin Wisse said...

Exxcellent post, as per usual, but one question. You said "The Navy, the RFA, and her master hoped the Russians would show the images to someone who would spot the key detail - Atlantic Conveyor was the leader, with the fleet tanker keeping station on her, not the other way around."

Could you explain why that would be important?

Alex said...

Martin: this was an incredible piece of seamanship, especially as the civilian crew of Atlantic Conveyor and the ship herself were never expected to do anything like that. I mention it because a) it's extremely cool, and b) it represents to me at least a sort of deep expertise and working-class pride in craftsmanship that was and remains utterly foreign to Thatcher and Thatcherism.

Curiously, it seems far stranger now that Soviet naval aviators once flew out of Conakry than that the British army was shipped to the Falklands.

Anonymous said...

'it represents to me at least a sort of deep expertise and working-class pride in craftsmanship that was and remains utterly foreign to Thatcher and Thatcherism.'

Utterly foreign to Thatcherism, but to be honest not terribly at home with Blairism or whatever culture takes root in the Labour Party now Tony is shuffling off the stage. I think that this is a genuine paradox: Thatcher did better at the decision-taking once the invasion occurred than any of her immediate successors or predecessors would have done, but the culture she wanted to see was all about self: which is not acceptable in a functioning merchant navy or in the Armed Forces. As regards the latter, see the recent ravages worked by caring, sharing Blairism.

Your take on the Armed Forces and Thatcherism ignores the fact that there was a massive pay rise- and also a fairly big rise in equipment spending- as almost the first thing she did in '79, repairing some of the damage of the Callaghan era. My Falklands vet mate- incidentally a Labour voter more often than not- remembers this as the one pay rise the Services ever received that was so large that it couldn't be wiped out by rises in food and service charges.

Hugo Bicheno in 'The Razor's Edge' states in as many words that when Callaghan claimed post-war that he had leaked the news of the submarine deployment to the Argentines via MI6, and thus deterred an invasion, 'he lied'. Bicheno claims that the RN submarine sent to the South Atlantic was under orders to withdraw at high speed if it sighted hostile Argentine navy vessels, and that the news of its deployment was definitely not leaked to the Argentines. Bicheno was an MI6 officer at the time and his view can't be instantly dismissed, though it isn't sourced in any way.

It's notable that the Franks Commission- whose membership included the Callaghan hack Merlyn Rees- did not make any mention of a successful deterrent operation by Callaghan in '78. I don't have Bicheno on me but will consult him for further details. Apart from anything else, the Argentine archives ought to confirm whether or not their Navy called off the 1978 invasion for fear of British submarine intervention.

Apprentice said...

RFA Greenleaf?? That's a new one!
The reason Tidespring did the station keeping is that RFAs are used to doing that sort of thing.
All the Guide has to do is steer a steady course and speed which is fairly simple, Your lack of nautical knowledge casts doubt on the rest of your theories.

Alex said...

Greenleaf: yes, whoops.

Regarding Tidepool (not Tidespring), Mike Clapp thought this was impressive enough to use the story in his memoirs. You could ask him?

Apprentice said...

I will next time I see him. Having grown up as a Fleet Air Arm Observer, he had little experience of the RFA and RAS before the Falklands.

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