Tag Archives: Henry Leach

Falklands 30 – the Fleet sails

I’m actually a day late with this one, but better late than never!

After the Argentine invasion of the Falklands on 2 April 1982, we have already heard about how the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Henry Leach persuaded the Prime Minister to launch a task force with a view to retaking the Islands.

By a fortuitous set of circumstances, many of the Royal Navy’s Destroyers and Frigates were off Gibraltar exercising. This enabled Britain to attempt to get to the South Atlantic before any diplomatic attempts forestalled a re-possession of the islands. Antrim, Glamorgan; Arrow; Brilliant; Coventry, Glasgow, Sheffield; also RFA Appleleaf, Fort Austin and Tidespring.

In Portsmouth, frenzied preparations took place. Two Aircraft Carriers were immediately available – the old HMS Hermes, and the brand new HMS Invincible. Neither were ready to sail, HMS Hermes in particular was partially destored. At once the Dockyard swung into action, literally working round the clock to prepare the ships to sail. To store, ammunition and ready two big ships for war within three days was nothing short of miraculous.Eyewitnesses remember endless lines of trucks coming off the M275 motorway heading into the Dockyard. My parents, who were living in Stamshaw at the time, a stones throw from the Dockyard, could hear the Sea Harriers coming in and landing on the decks of the carriers. Normally, you would never have seen a fixed wing aircraft land on a ship inside the dockyard – but these were special circumstances, and peacetime regulations went out of the window. The two carriers eventually sailed on 5 April 1982.

HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes sail from Portsmouth

Notice just how many people are on the seafront in Portsmouth to see the ships off. I don’t know if its just me, but the images of Invincible and Hermes sailing to war are among the most iconic images of the 1980’s. It shows just how closely Portsmouth takes the Royal Navy  to its heart, and similar scenes were witnessed – albeit slightly fewer people – when HMS Daring and HMS Dauntless deployed recently. It’s something that Portsmouth and its people have seen countless times, over more than 800 years of history.

In the same week that Hermes and Invincible departed, they were joined by Alacrity, Antelope, Broadsword, Fearless and Yarmouth; along with Brambleleaf, Olmeda, Pearleaf, Resource, Sir Galahad, Sir Geraint, Sir Lancelot, Sir Percivale and Stromness. The first Merchant vessels also departed – including Canberra from Southampton, carrying two Royal Marine Commando and a Para Battalion.

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Falklands 30 – Dockies, the unsung First Sea Lord and the same old from CFK

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems quite odd joining the ‘Falklands 30′ bandwagon, considering that a large proportion of the words written on this blog over the past three years or so have been about the Falklands! But I have been struck by three things over the last few days – the lack of credit given to the Dockyard workers, the importance of Admiral Sir Henry Leach, and the never-ending tripe emanating from Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires.

Firstly I want to pay a huge tribute to a group of people who were, for me, the unsung heroes of the Falklands campaign. The dockyard workers of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard – and indeed other places such as Plymouth and Chatham – prepared the fleet for action in an unbelievably short time. Argentina invaded the Falklands on 2 April. The Carrier Group – including HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes – sailed from Portsmouth on 5 April. Thats a turnaround of three days, to get two big, capital ships into action. The Hermes at least was destored. Many of the dockies – not dockers -were under threat of redundancy after Sir John Nott‘s defence cuts of the previous year, and his plan to emasculate the Dockyard. My Dad had left the Dockyard only weeks previously. Stories abound of men working round the clock, many setting up camp beds near their workstations. One Dockyard worker had to be almost forcibly removed from his machine after a 36 hour shift. We probably couldn’t put in a mammoth effort like that now, with a vastly reduced workforce, and much of it outsourced to private hands. There’s a great article about the Dockyard during the Falklands here in the Portsmouth News.

I’m also amazed by how little attention is given to another of the unsung heroes of the Falklands War – Admiral Sir Henry Leach. Leach, the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, happened to be in Whitehall in full dress uniform on 2 April. With his boss the Chief of the Defence Staff away on an official visit, Leach took it upon himself to seek out the Prime Minister. At the time Mrs Thatcher was in her House of Commons meeting room with the Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott. Nott was outlining the difficulties that any military operation would entail. Leach was kept waiting outside by flunkies, but one Thatcher learnt of his presence, she asked for him to be shown in. Leach proceeded to explain that an operation to re-take the Falklands would be possible. And not only that, he overstepped his authority and explained that it SHOULD take place. When asked why he said this by Mrs Thatcher, he explained that ‘if not, soon we will be living in a very different country where words count for little’. Liking this, the Prime Minister sent him away with approval to form a task force. Apparently John Nott went white as a sheet. Not only had he been outplayed by one of his subordinates, but his defence reforms were in tatters. I am reminded of the officer in Bridge over the River Kwai, who loses grip on reality and tries to prevent the demolition of the bridge.

Henry Leach and Terence Lewin were seadogs of a different age. Having been to war in 1939-45, they were cut from different cloth than our political commanders of current years. Would modern First Sea Lords tell a Prime Minister exactly what they think, contrary to the Defence Secretary’s advice? Sadly, politicians don’t seem to tolerate professional wisdom nowadays. If I were Prime Minister, I would rather uncomfortable advice from an experienced serviceman, than hollow rhetoric from a career politician. Henry Leach was 100% right – Britain would be a very different place now, if it had not stood up for its beleagured friends in 1982.

It never ceases to amaze me the rubbish that Cristina Fernandez comes out with down in Buenos Aires. This time she hijacks the anniversary of an Argentine-instigated war, to argue that ‘colonial enclaves are absurd’. I’m still not sure how exactly she can have the gall to say that, given that the Falklands were under British sovereignty before Argentina even existed. Argentina itself is made up of the diaspora of colonial conquerors in the Spanish. This fascinating article by John Simpson tells us the story from another angle – the growing domination of the press by the Government in Argentina; the ‘official’ inflation rate of 7% and the indenpendent rate of 22%; and the feeling that Fernandez has resorted to traditional route one Argentine politics by wheeling out the Malvinas issue when there are social and economic problems at home. The sad thing is, that the majority of Argentines appear to believe her tripe.

In recent years it has routinely been peddled that the rest of South America is at one with Buenos Aires over the Falklands. Certainly, no one has said or done anything to dispel this myth. But Simpson argues that Fernandez is taking Argentina down a dysfunctional and isolated path, taking the country closer to dubious regimes such as Venezuela and Iran, which more moderate South American leaders are understandably not happy about. Fernandez is propogating something of a cult of personality, Chavez style. A snazzy dresser (for an Argentine, anyway!), and quite possibly reconstructed by surgical means, she also rarely gives interviews, only broadcasting direct on national television. She has reportedly annoyed Brazil by proposing a non-nuclear zone in the South Atlantic – obviously with an eye on putting a shot across British bows. However, Brazil is currently building a fleet of nuclear submarines.

I cannot help but feel that if Britain tries to weather the storm emanating from BA, reacting robustly and being prepared, that eventually Fernandez and her ilk will have no choice but to moderate their behaviour. It’s hard to see it lasting for too long in that regional and international context.

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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts: PM’s papers released

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Image via Wikipedia

Some of you may have seen that Prime Ministerial Papers relating to John Nott‘s 1981 cuts to the British Armed Forces were made available to the public on New Years Day, under the 30 year rule. As I am sure you are aware I have long had a strong interest in British Military History in the post war period, and especially in the 1982 Falklands War.

The 1982 war is irrevocably tied up with the Defence cuts of 1981, steered by the Defence Secretary of the time, John Nott. The cuts – which proposed to do away with aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance – are thought to have spurred the Argentine military junta into action. Ironically, if only they had waited another six months the Royal Navy would never have been able to respond. And not only that, but thousands of Dockyard workers who had redundancy notices hanging over their heads were critical in getting the task force ready to sail.

Clearly, if we are looking for lessons of how to do Defence cuts in challenging economic times, the Nott cuts are a valuable example. The file runs to 200+ pages, and consists of ministerial notes, correspondence, memos and speeches. Many of them have handwriting scribbled on, including in the hand of Mrs T herself. I have had a cursory glance through them, and whilst the general thrust is already well known, the files do demonstrate just how far the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach (above), went to try to protect the Navy. He took the very unusual step of asking to see the Prime Minister personally on the issue. Although each of the three service chiefs have the prerogative to see the PM, in practice 99% of the time they raise queries through the Chief of the Defence Staff or the Defence Secretary. Of course, we now know that in that fateful meeting in the House of Commons in April 1982, Leach claimed one of the greatest ‘told you so’s of modern history.

What is new about these documents is the depth they go into in explaining the thinking, the rationale between cutting the Royal Navy, whilst enhancing the RAF and maintaining the Army at the status quo. It is an interesting case study of the defence priorities that Britain had in 1981, and there are also some insights into procurement, costs, and the inventory of equipment that the armed forces had at the time.

I’m going to have a look through them and post up some snippets and my analysis. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

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The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts revisited

British Royal Marines in the Falkland Islands ...

An image we ever want to see again? (Image via Wikipedia)

The parallels with 1982 are all to worrying. An aggressively-sounding Government in Buenos Aries (even though technically Democratic), a newly elected but unpopular Conservative Government seeking to slash public expenditure, and economic problems in both countries.

In 1982 the Secretary of State for Defence had just implemented a Defence Review the previous year. It was conducted in the context of economic problems, a Thatcher-led desire to slash budgets, and a Soviet build-up during the era of ‘reaganomics’. Nott’s solution was to concentrate almost solely on Britain’s role in NATO. The purchase of Trident was confirmed. The British Army of the Rhine, although the centrepiece of British defence within NATO, was to be limited to 55,000 men. The Royal Navy was to lose one fifth of its 60 Destroyers and Frigates. Aircraft Carriers were to be phased out, with the sale of HMS Hermes and the newly-built ‘through deck cruiserHMS Invincible. Amphibious ships were to be scrapped too, meaning the end of HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless. Essentially, the Navy was to become an anti-submarine force to operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. The ability to act independently out of the NATO area was effectively being given up. And amongst other things, the Royal Navy Dockyards were to be drastically wound down and privatised, meaning thousands of redundancies. One of the lesser-known items in the review was the withdrawal of the antartic patrol ship, HMS Endurance.

These proposals were underway when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The kind of crisis that the Nott review hard ruled out had happened. Reportedly MOD Civil Servants were most upset that the Falklands War had scuppered their beautiful review. When the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, obtained permission from Margaret Thatcher to assemble a Task Force, apparently John Nott went as white as a sheet. He knew that his career was finished. Somehow I cant help feeling that for a lot of people their careers were more important than the fate of British Citizens in the South Atlantic, and the fate of the men sent to fight for them.

The upshot of the Falklands War was that almost everything that had been offered up as savings was rescued at the eleventh hour. Hermes was sold, but the three Invincible Class Carriers -as we are allowed to call them now – were retained. Fearless and Intrepid were reprieved, and replaced with HMS Albion and Bulwark recently. HMS Ocean has also added to the Royal Navy’s expeditionary capability. Endurance was also reprieved, and replaced in the early 1990’s with a modern vessel. The Destroyer and Frigate fleet was pegged – in the short term – at 55 ships.

The cost of the Falklands War – financial, human, and material – has been far in excess of the relatively meagre savings sought by Nott. The hundreds of lives lost in 1982. The ships sunk, aircraft lost, ammunition expended. The cost of a sizeable garrison, and building a military base at Mount Pleasant. The Falklands Island has had a patrol ship,  a Frigate or Destroyer on guard, and auxiliary vessels since the war. The running cost – to this day, and still rising – must be incredible. All inspired to save a few quid. Evidence, if any is needed, that Defence cuts can be shortsighted and a false economy. Argentinian sources suggest that the decision to invade, although largely spurred on by domestic unrest, was further emboldened by the Nott cuts. The Junta’s reasoning was that if the British were cutting their forces – and the ice patrol ship in particular – not only would they be unable to respond to an invasion, but they obviously did not care about their overseas posessions enough to defend them in the first place.

Fortunately, British resolve was restored by the war. Although it is tragic that in the modern world we even need to resort to force, had Britain capitulated in 1982 we would, in Henry Leach’s words, have been living in a very different country were words counted for little. Britain’s role as a force on the world state was maintained, a brutal military dictatorship fell, and the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact received a timely reminder of the quality of NATO standard troops. But all by the skin of our teeth, and if Nott’s cuts had been fully implemented, we would have not been able to act.

Whilst Mrs Thatcher received plaudits for her handling of the Falklands War, more searching inquiries suggest that the war needn’t have happened in the first place. If only the Foreign Office under Lord Carrington had not been so clueless, the Defence Secretary not so subservient, and if Thatcher had not been so single minded and ideological in wishing to strip public spending. Worryingly, the upcoming Defence Review may once again remove Britain’s ability to react adequately to any crisis in the world, particularly in the South Atlantic. This cannot have been lost on the Argentinians. Do we really trust David Cameron and ‘Boy’ George Osborne to sort things out for us if their cuts go badly wrong?

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