The Empire Strikes Out

Hard of the heels of our discussions on both advisability of the UK attempting to build new aircraft carriers for a global role it can’t afford (see Macho White Heffalumps from March 26th) and the hubris of empire over islands at the far end of the world that we British thought we could hold easily (see Those Who Don’t Learn from History in November 2011), we find ourselves at the 30th anniversary of the short, sharp Falklands War (Guerra de las Malvinas to those on the other side). From media coverage, the lessons hard learned then do not yet appear to have been learned.

In 1982, despite the Empire being just a memory to people over 40, Britian still aspired to a global rôle. So when, on April 2nd, Lieutenant Commander Guillermo Sanchez-Sabarots’ Amphibious Commandos Group, landed and rolled up Major Norman’s handful of Royal Marines, it was all over in a day. This should not have come as a total surprise to the MoD. Two weeks earlier, a non-military Argentinian occupation of the abandoned whaling station on South Georgia had resulted in them dispatching two nuclear submarines (HMS Splendid & HMS Spartan) along with RFA Fort Austin to support the only RN ship in the area, the survey ship HMS Endurance.

Carrington’s resignation and Thatcher’s doughty dispatch of a task force to re-take the islands is well documented. The resolute, brave and professional exploits of all three services will, deservedly, receive much media coverage over the next two months, up to June 14th, the 30th anniversary of the Argentine surrender in Port Stanley. Epic though those exploits were, it was, as Wellington phrased it at Waterloo; “a damn close-run thing”. Not only could it have been a disaster but any modern equivalent would almost certainly be. This is because a series of major pieces of luck all fell our way:

  1. The ‘Argies’ didn’t expect a response. Even the US thought the UK crazy to try to take islands 7,000 miles from home and over 2,000 from their nearest base on Ascension. As a result, the garrison of partly conscripts weren’t expected to have to fight.
  2. Casper Weinburger was an anglophile. In deference to his latino population and diplomacy in Latin America, President Reagan resolutely declared the US to be neutral but his Secretary of Defense persuaded him to supply badly needed satellite intelligence and sidewinder missiles, without which the British would have lost.
  3. The Argentinians had few Exocets. French-built and carried by a Dassault Super-Etendard strike fighters, these were weapons for which the Task Force had no real answer (Phalanx gatling guns came later). Launched from below the horizon, two of these destroyed HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor (with 6 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters). The lucky part is that the second target was meant to be HMS Invincible, the loss of which would have ended the operation.
  4. Although operating outside the British-declared exclusion zone around the Falklands, the WWII-vintage cruiser Belgrano was sunk by a single torpedo from HMS Conqueror, triggering a dispute as to the legitimacy of the action. However, this did remove any surface threat to the Task Force and allowed it to concentrate on the occupying land forces and incoming air attacks.
  5. Despite their phenomenal bravery flying at extreme range with ‘iron’ bombs, Argentinian Air Force pilots destroyed few of the sitting-duck-target ships in San Carlos Water after the landing. They hit plenty but at least three out of four bombs did not explode because they were released so low, the fuses had no time to arm.
  6. Operation ‘Black Buck‘ was a success. Due for scrapping that year, the RAF still had a number of Vulcan delta-wing bombers on strength. By scraping together a dozen air tankers and refueling single Vulcans, one reached the Falklands from Ascension to strew 21 1,000lb bombs across the runway at Port Stanley, rendering the airfield unusable to all but light aircraft. This denied the Argentinians air superiority.
  7. Goose Green was held mainly by conscripts. After the landing, 2 Para was sent to clear this flank of the advance on Port Stanley. Across bare ground, with little artillery and no armour support, this was an almost suicidal mission,. But, carried out with such bravery and determination, it psyched out the defenders who surrendered, but not before Col. H. Jones lost his life leading the attack. News of this undermined the remaining Argentine defenders’ morale.

Had any one of the seven items not happened, the outcome would have been in serious doubt; had several of them happened, the operation certainly would have been a disaster and the Falklands probably have become the Malvinas and part of Argentina. But the present exploration for oil in the waters around keeps the question of sovereignty alive.

Nowadays, with no aircraft carriers, no long-range bombers, no STOL Harriers, fewer ships, fewer aircraft and ‘operational stretch’ of forces being fully committed (overcommitted?) in Afghanistan and elsewhere, a similar occupation—in the Falklands or even anywhere else up to and including North Sea oil rigs and Channel Islands—could not be repulsed, let alone ejected, by the UK’s present forces, even if an equivalent seven lucky breaks to the above could be guaranteed.

For a country with the third highest defence budget in the world (£40bn), we have an execrable deal. It’s one about which serious questions need to be asked—as well as what the UK thinks it is doing in the 21st century, not just in Afghanistan, but in the fourteen ‘pink bits’ on which the sun still never sets, any of which have the ability to entangle us in a Falklands-type war. The difference being that, now, there’d be little chance of winning.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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