Falklands then and now: Command and Leadership

In 1982, the primacy of the Royal Navy was clear. The Task Force came about largely because the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, over-rode the objections of the Army and RAF and insisted that it should be attempted. As the conflict was dependant on the Navy to carry it out, command was placed within existing Royal Navy structures. The Task Force Commander was Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet based in Northwood.

In other respects, however, the arrangement was rather ad-hoc. In some respects, there was an almost dangeorus lack of understanding, clash of personalities and unwielding lines of command. The British armed forces learnt many lessons from how command coped in the Falklands, and this led to new systems and structures that were perfected from the first Gulf War onwards.

The picture in 1982

Brigadier Julian Thompson and Major-General Jeremy Moore conferring

Brigadier Julian Thompson and Major-General Jeremy Moore conferring

In 1982 senior appointments and command systems were focussed on Britain’s role within NATO. Independent operations outside of NATO and without allies were thought extremely unlikely.

The Commander of the Battle Group, Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward, fell into the role rather than being chosen, as his flotilla was exercising off Gibraltar when the crisis blew up. He was a Submariner Officer, who had spent a matter of weeks onboard Aircraft Carriers during his career. If he hadn’t been on the spot it is likely that a more senior, Aircraft Carrier or Amphibious specialist would have been appointed.

In other respects the command system was rather untidy – to this day, Woodward insists that he was the senior commander in the South Atlantic, whereas Julian Thompson (3 Commando Brigade) and MiKe Clapp (Commodore Amphibious Warfare) feel that they ALL were equal and reported back to John Fieldhouse in Britain. This could have resulted in serious problems. That such senior officers were unclear of who commanded who is rather worrying.

The submarines, meanwhile, were commanded directly from Britain, in the same manner as if they were in the North Atlantic. This left Woodward, an ex-Submarine Commander himself, out of the loop completely and unable to control one of the key components of the Task Force. The time taken communicating over the Belgrano issue could have led to her slipping away.

The picture in 2009

Structure of the Permament Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)

Structure of the Permament Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)

After the end of the Cold War, doctrine and experience has led to a more flexible culture and structure of command, less on any predictable enemy or threat and more able to react quickly and flexibly to crises.

As a result of the lessons learnt during the Falklands War, a Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) was set up, to command all three armed services during combined operations. This is a more permanent and more professional arrangement than previously, whereby the Armed service that was most involved in an operation commanded on an ad hoc basis. As such any Argentine invasion could be met with an immediate response by the PJHQ who could go to work immediately.

The Royal Navy itself has fine tuned its command system and its structure. The Chief of Joint Operations at PJHQ would perform the function that Admiral Fieldhouse did in 1982 as the British-based command of the Task Force, and the Commander UK Maritime Forces, a Rear-Admiral, would probably be deployed as the senior Commander in theatre. The Carrier Strike Group and Amphibious Group both have Commodores commanding them who would deploy as well. The Commander UK Amphibious Forces, a Royal Marines Major-General, would likely command the Land Forces as in 1982, with the Brigadiers of the specific Brigades – Army or Marines – underneath him.


In 1982 the command arrangements for the Task Force were largely improvised specifically for the conflict, as it fell outside the remit of the existing structures and there were no permanent arrangements for commanding joint operations. This was also reflected in the broader culture within the armed forces.

Despite their ad-hoc nature the arrangements worked well, although there were problems – particularly the lack of understanding between the Battle Group Commander and the Amphibious Commanders, and the control of Submarines in theatre. Commanders in theatre also had limited independence, and ultimate command rested in Britain. With the limited technology of the day, this made communication difficult.

Lessons were clearly learnt, as in 2009 the Armed Forces have an integrated system for co-ordinating joint operations, that has worked well in recent conflicts. This would be able to swing into action the minute any Task Force were required. The value of a familiar and dedicated staff team in taking action would be considerable. Modern statellite technology would enable swifter communication and decision making.



Filed under Army, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

31 responses to “Falklands then and now: Command and Leadership

  1. The Falklands was one of the key factors in the emergence of a Joint Warfare Doctrine in the 90’s i.e. British Defence Doctrine. Something that Britain should have had much earlier.

  2. James Daly

    In hindsight – always a wonderful thing – it should really have emerged when the joint Ministry of Defence was put in place in the 1960’s, but I suspect that that was trauamatic enough to put off any plans for more integrated structures.

    I still think at times it would be beneficial to see a more holistic UK Defence approach, it can only be detrimental when the Services have to compete with each other for profile and funding. But I guess thats what you get when the Government play divide and rule…

  3. The command structure in 1982 may not have been perfect but the quality, courage and experience of the individuals in command was outstanding. Admiral Henry Leach who had the confidence to tell Thatcher that sending a task force was possible in the first place. Sandy Woodward may have been widely disliked and criticised but keeping his carriers safe and keeping to a tight timetable while supporting the land forces was the correct overall strategy. The fact that he was a submariner who could come aboard a carrier and command a diverse fleet speaks volumes about the breadth and excellence of RN officer training. Commodore Clapp was also and unsung hero who knew amphibious operations inside out and his excellent planing and attention to detail made for a smooth landing. Further down the chain of command there were many outstanding commanding officers who took their ships into danger for weeks on end, delivered results and kept cool and calm under intense pressure.

  4. James Daly

    Thanks for pointing that out, I think thats one of the advantages of taking the longview – time and time again in British military history officers and men stand up and be counted. You could argue that Henry Leach by his actions in that fateful meeting with Thatcher and Nott changed British history. What really strikes me as well about the Falklands is the quality of some of the ships Captains – David Hart-Dyke, Bill Canning, Chris Craig and John Coward sound like fitting descendants of men like Gerard Roope VC.

    Its exactly those kind of strong traditions and culture of command that prolonged cuts and poor defence policy will chip away at.

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