£14.23 (Hardback) £9.38 (Kindle)
Maritime historian, Dr Paul Brown recently published Abandon Ship described as “The real story of the sinkings in the Falklands War”. This is an engaging, if rather an uncomfortable book, based more on written and documentary evidence than personal experiences which informs much of the Falklands conflict literature.
This book is essentially about failure. The war in 1982 has inspired an enormous volume of literature but this is a rather unique and fairly dispassionate work focusses on a series of disasters. Published just one year short of the 40th anniversary of the conflict, unpicking events in an attempt to understand the truth and learn lessons is a valuable exercise but is sure to stir up controversy, especially when the majority of those that served in the conflict are still with us. The book skilfully pulls together Freedom Of Information requests (FOI), the Board of Enquiry (BOI) reports and previously published personal testimonies very well. For those already very familiar with the details of the conflict, there is not a huge amount that is really new. The RN BOI reports are freely available online and most of the stories of the ships that were lost have been covered in-depth in books published in the last decade or so. The photographs included in the book are mostly familiar but the detailed maps of each action are very useful.
The chapter on the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano gives a good overview of events and some more detail from the Argentine side. There is a slight error in the claim that Mk8 torpedos were selected to “penetrate the anti-torpedo bulges of the cruiser”. She had no such underwater protection and the three of the old Mk 8 were used selected simply because the new Tigerfish had proved unreliable in trials.
Like all the subsequent chapters of the book, the descriptions of what it is like to be on a ship after being hit can be distressing but the stories are mixed with uplifting stories of bravery and selflessness. The book further lays to rest the disingenuous accusations that the Belgrano posed no threat to the Task Force at the time but was ordered to be sunk so “Mrs Thatcher could have her war”. Her Captain, Héctor Bonzo, an honourable man, always accepted that his ship was fair game and was part of a plan to attack the British fleet. Further reading: Sink the Belgrano, by Mike Rossiter (2008), Secrets of the Conqueror by Stuart Preeble (2013) and Hunter Killers, by Iain Ballantyne (2014).
The crew of HMS Sheffield have faced strong criticisms over inaction and lack of preparedness by the BOI, Paul Brown and others. Things certainly did go wrong, performance was not as it might have been but there were big flaws in the Type 42 destroyers that were not the fault of their crews. As we wrote when the full BOI was published in 2017, Unless you were aboard HMS Sheffield between 14.00 and 14.04 on 4th May 1982, you can never know precisely what happened or what it felt like to be on the spot. Despite the supposedly reliable evidence of the board of enquiry, we should exercise caution when passing quick judgments on the actions of men on the frontline decades ago. The Shiny Shef was the first British ship to take a serious hit and lessons were rapidly learned. Further reading: One Hundred Days, Sandy Woodward (2012).
Like HMS Sheffield, HMS Ardent was poorly equipped for her task and but her loss demonstrated the crew’s courage under sustained attack. The most dubious claim repeated in Brown’s book is that Ardent could have been saved, despite a significant list and major fires, the crew did not make a thorough enough examination of the leaks in her hull. This smacks of a theoretical classroom exercise and fine margins at best, not a real-world scenario taking into account the state of traumatised crew and a heavily damaged and burning ship that had taken multiple bomb hits. The story is vividly described from a more personal perspective in Through Fire and Water by Mark Higgit (2007).
The chapter on HMS Antelope’s short war is perhaps where there is most really new material. It reveals that she was rather poorly prepared to be sent South with persistent unresolved weapons defects and a lacking adequate operational sea training time. After initially being employed on escort duties away from the main action, the ship was not especially well prepared or equipped for the rigours of San Carols (‘bomb alley’) and officers were heavily criticised by the Board of Inquiry for their actions after being hit by bombs that did not explode. However none were accused of negligence, the CO Captain Nick Tobin was awarded the DSC for exemplary leadership and courage, Commodore Clapp described the ship’s company as “a superbly motivated and gallant crew”. The Army bomb disposal effort was extremely brave but encountered problems that were poorly communicated and outside help should have been sought which might have avoided the bomb detonating and killing one of the EOD personnel.
The sinking of HMS Coventry is a more complex story than the previous losses. The ship had been well prepared and had already proved herself in action, shooting down aircraft as she was designed to do. She had taken up an exposed position and in company with HMS Broadsword were acting as a ‘missile trap’. The Sea Wolf of HMS Broadsword was intended to provide close-in defence while Coventry’s Sea Dart would take out aircraft at longer range. The trap was initially effective but in the heat of battle, manoeuvring mistakes put Coventry across Broadsword’s weapons arc, allowing the attacking aircraft to get in close and hit the ship with at least 3 bombs. Arguably the RN needed an air defence destroyer with both point defence and area air defence missiles on a single hull (ultimately achieved in the Type 45 design). Harrier jets that could have intercepted the attackers were also hauled off by Coventry due to over-confidence in missile systems. Coventry’s war is brilliantly described in a personal and more detailed way in Four Weeks in May by her captain, David Hart-Dyke (2007)
The loss of MV Atlantic Conveyor, a large merchant ship hastily converted for use as a stores and aircraft transporter, to Exocet missiles has proved controversial over the years. It is hard to agree with Brown’s conclusions as he makes too much of her lack of chaff and self-defence weapons and a communications failure that might have allowed her to turn her stern protected by a tough steel ramp to the direction of the incoming missiles. Furthermore many believe she was deliberately placed as a sacrificial screen for the aircraft carriers. The conversion of the ship in 10 days did not allow time for military communications, decoys and weapons to be fitted and a crew suitably trained and worked up. Such a delay would have prevented her from playing her most vital role – delivering Harrier reinforcements to the task force. Even if she had received chaff launchers it is doubtful they would have seduced missiles away from such a large target and the plan to align her stern precisely with an incoming missile seems optimistic.
The Task Force commander, Sandy Woodward admitted his mistake was to bring Atlantic Conveyor in from the safe area to the east too soon and in daylight, rather than any plan to use her as a shield. As it happened, although her loss was very serious from a logistic point of view, it was ultimately preferable she took the missiles rather than the carrier. Despite the ‘what ifs’, the bravery of her crew, and in particular her master Captain Ian North, shines through in the book. The recent work by Roland White, Harrier 809 (2020) gives more insight into the action and Think Defence has the best online resource covering the story.
The destruction of RFA Sir Galahad (and severe damage to RFA Sir Tristram) is a classic example of the fog of war when a whole series of small mistakes combined together lead to disaster. Paul Brown does a good job describing the inter-related events and decisions that led up to the attack. There is no single culprit to blame but it is an object lesson on the need for clarity of command structures, communications and discipline between multiple formations and services in action together. The aftermath of the attack on Sir Galahad was particularly harrowing but many heroic and selfless actions followed. The full context of why two virtually unarmed auxiliaries ended up in a forward position without air cover is explored more fully in Amphibious Assault Falklands by Mike Clapp and Ewen Southby-Tailyour (2012).
The book may give the impression of naval incompetence but of course, the losses were the price for ultimate victory. For most of the RN’s history, it has always been understood that it may lose ships in order to win wars, something that many other navies have not always been prepared do. Many mistakes were made which seem so avoidable with hindsight but as is the case in most wars, the victor made far fewer errors than the defeated. What is clear was the navy was poorly equipped for the conflict it never expected to fight. A navy focussed on blue-water anti-submarine warfare was suddenly thrust into an air-defence dominated conflict, much of it in confined inshore waters. The responsibility for losses and failures in many cases cannot just be carried by those doing the fighting. The officer on the frontline who makes a fatal mistake may just be the last link in a chain of failures that goes right to senior levels in the navy or government.
Paul Brown has made a valuable contribution to the history of the Falklands war and this book is well worth reading.
Main Image: Imperial War Museum