How the Falklands War 'shadow' undid the British Army in Iraq

Jun 14, 2012
Crispin Black

No veteran of the Falklands has ever commanded the army. Their absence has been dangerous for our Afghan and Iraqi operations

THIRTY YEARS ago, on Monday 14 June 1982, the Argentine garrison on the Falkland Islands threw in the handbag.

They had been soundly beaten by a numerically inferior enemy, short on rations and ammunition, in the teeth of the southern winter - operating half a world away from its home base in the UK.

The reaction of a Gurkha officer, Major Dawson, filmed on a snow-swept mountain above Port Stanley, sounds pitch perfect even today: "There are white flags flying over Stanley. Bloody marvellous. Tee hee."

That small but bloody war far away and long ago has influenced history in many ways. Mrs Thatcher's government survived. Argentina's ghastly military junta fell. Above all, the Falkland Islanders were free once again to live under the Crown as they wished.

Social mobility seems to be all the rage these days.  How people get ahead.  The 30th anniversary of victory in the Falklands is a good moment to examine what we might call 'military mobility' - the promotion prospects of the soldiers and sailors who fought in the Falklands War - and what influence they were able to have on conflicts and wars that came after.

You would expect a 'Falklands boost' to the careers of those involved. You will find instead a 'Falklands shadow'.

The immediate victors of the Falklands campaign were meagrely rewarded. Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, the overall commander of the Task Force, was knighted and eventually promoted to full admiral but never became the top sailor.

In earlier times a baronetcy and smooth progression to become the professional head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord, would have been the norm. Given that he is the only Royal Navy officer who has commanded a fleet at sea in war since 1945 it seems perverse that he never got the top job. A Falklands veteran did eventually make it when the dashing frigate captain, Alan West, now Lord West of Spithead, became First Sea Lord in 2002.

The same applied to the Royal Marines. Julian Thompson, who was in charge of 3 Commando Brigade during the campaign and was in many ways 'man of the match', became a general but never the top marine.

To be sure, some of his decisions during the campaign were controversial and some found him abrasive but so what? Successful command in war of the only marine brigade should surely have eminently qualified him for the job of top marine. Apparently not. He finished his career as the man in charge of Royal Marine reservists.

Although to be fair a couple of Falklands veterans have subsequently succeeded as Commandant General Royal Marines, the British Army has never been run by a Falklands veteran.

Three of the officers present with the Second Battalion Scots Guards on Mount Tumbledown on the night of 13-14 June 1982 went on to become generals. One, 'no names no pack drill', is a very senior general indeed who certainly 20-plus years later could have been selected to run the army. But others with less operational experience were preferred.

Astonishingly, the Falklands shadow has been most pronounced in the Parachute Regiment. Two of the regiment's three battalions deployed on Operation Corporate – the codename assigned to the military action. A number of their officers were to become generals later in life. Again none became top soldier.

You would have thought that one of that glittering Paratrooper generation – the men who fought at Goose Green, Mount Longdon and Wireless Ridge - might eventually make it to the top. But no, the paratrooper who made it all the way was General Sir Michael Jackson who was (reluctantly) flying a mahogany bomber in Whitehall throughout the Falklands War.

Something strange has obviously been going on here – some kind of subconscious bias perhaps, jealousy even.

This was to have a dangerous effect a generation later at the higher reaches of the British Army. The senior generals in the run up to both the Iraq and Afghan interventions took a remarkably relaxed view of a very rickety logistics system. They did not seem to mind that equipment was poor.

A Falklands veteran would have taken more pains. Our equipment was lousy for the most part and there was little food to go around.  There were few helicopters because the Argentine Air Force managed to sink Atlantic Conveyor, the ship that was carrying them, with an Exocet missile.

We improvised or did without – not because we wanted to but because there was no alternative, given the circumstances.  It cost lives. But 20 years later at the start of the Iraq War the improvisation seemed to have become a virtue in itself for some that were not forced to experience it.

Perhaps it's a romantic view but I can't help thinking that the army would have been better prepared for the rigours of both Iraq and Afghanistan if it had been run by someone who had fought in a proper war.

Sadly, the army's weird preference for bureaucratic rather than martial qualities appears to be alive and well. The redundancies announced this week fell disproportionately on frontline soldiers, many of whom have been on operations more or less constantly since the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, the men flying the mahogany bombers in Whitehall, as ever, will continue to thrive.

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Politics always wins

This is not a new phenomenon. Colonel R S Baden-Powell became a national hero due to his exemplary command of besieged British forces in   Mafeking in the Second Boer War of 1899. His defensive strategy is still taught as an exemplar in military academies around the world. The successful outcome of the siege led to five days of riotous celebrations in London and Baden-Powell's immediate promotion to Lieutenant General, but his later progress was limited to the role of Inspector of Cavalry, a job that kept him out of the limelight and away from army-wide decision making and he left the army four years later. The fact is that successful battlefield soldiers rarely make good administrators and today's conflicts are largely organized at the higher level by back office hierarchies that are may not always accommodate the talents displayed by a successful field officer. 

Well said, Crispin.

I wonder if the increased media scrutiny of Falklands compared with WW2 and earlier contributes to the shadow effect?

Meejah scrutiny of wars, already 'embedded' in 1982, has spread like a cancer since Falklands.

One consequence of more public gaze is more concern to cover up the cockups, so that when doughty warriors speak their mind, the effect is more pronounced in the meejah frenzy, and therefore the political 'damage' is perceived as greater and therefore the politicians want to punish the miscreant warrior more severely. 

Just a theory. I don't think it is human nature to behave like politicians do, but I do believe that a certain sub-class of human, the kind that seeks to be a politician (or manager, public applause-seekers) does have this trait.  It is political human nature. I don't believe we will ever see politicians who don't behave like this. Shame. As e.e.cummings said:

a politician is an arse uponwhich everyone has sat except a man

"Stay by your desk and never go to sea and you, too, may Captain of the Queen's Navy" - HMS Pinafore (with apologies to Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan) - nothing has changed since the days of Queen Victoria.

In April 1982 I was part of the HMS Warrior group, at Northwood in Middlesex, closely monitoring the events in the South Atlantic.   Admiral John Fieldhouse was in overall command of the operation (I seem to recall) - I was physically co-located with a very busy and effective Logistics cell - (ably led, by the way, by a Royal Marines Major) - due to the tireless efforts of that Logistics entity it was possible to "struggle through" in the face of such unexpected setbacks as the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor.   

It is all very well to farm out Logistics and other support functions to "private companies" - I would wager that no one at Whitehall, MOD or No's 10 or 11 Downing Street has the slightest understanding of how close a run thing the Logistics war was during the Falklands conflict - to take such insane (and, frankly immature and reckless) risks with future military ventures simply amplifies the utter inexperience and obduracy of the current incumbents of no's 10 and 11 Downing Street - just what sort of advice are they heeding?!!

What utter nonsense. If anything the -problem- is that the head of the army is not appointed from the Logistical Corps or Engineers (you know, people who actually organize logistical systems?) and is instead from the "teeth arms" who have a poor grasp of logistics.

The ability to command is about more than what medals you have got.

Keeping up with illegal and fruitless fights around the world while the state of our economy is apalling and people are living close to poverty line while politicians and the military industrial machinery keep inventing wars around the globe and holding nuclear bases in the strategic south atlantic is an inmoral act of piracy.Stealing some other countries natural resources like oil,gas,the richest fishing reserves and access to the antartica is criminal.Miilitary honour and bravery is just a cover for otherwise more unemployed unhealthy persons on the dole, watching telly and eating fish n´chips.