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Military History Opinion Short Read

Falklands 40: The Question of Command

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

One of the great contentions during the conflict, and something that surfaced in the recent Channel 4 documentary, was the chain of command established by Martime HQ in Northwood. This second article will assess this question against established practice and thought. (find the first article here).

Molyneux, Callwell and Corbett all had much to say on the subject of command and control of Amphibious forces. Molyneux stressed the requirement for commanders to be practised in the art of conjunct expeditions. He held up the failure of Mordaunt at Rochefort (1757) as an example of personnel with too little experience or knowledge in the execution of these complex operations.1 Lt Col James Wolfe concurred with this assessment. Further, Molyneux highlighted the petty jealousies and personal frictions that may arise between commanders.2 These twin defects – ‘want of unanimity’ and ‘ignorance’ – surfaced throughout the 1982 campaign to greater or lesser degrees, and at different times.

What was clear in 1982, was that Jointness was again strained, and the established chain of command was anything but coherent. This came from the top and can be traced to the peculiar circumstances of the Cold War, as discussed previously. Subsequently, the Navy Command at Northwood was designed and staffed by ‘deep-blue’ personnel relatively unprepared for an out-of-area amphibious operation: the Task Force Commander was a submariner, as was the Commander Carrier Task Group (CCTG).

Commodore Clapp was, by experience, a littoral and air warfare specialist, serving in both the surface fleet and Fleet Air Arm. As a junior officer he had witnessed the effects of naval gunfire support on shore targets during the Korea War; and as Commanding Officer of HMS Puncheston had inserted Gurkha patrols during the Indonesian confrontation, providing littoral manoeuvre. He had also commanded a Buccaneer squadron (801) onboard HMS Victorious, and prior to appointment as Commodore Amphibious Warfare was director of the Joint Maritime Operational Training Staff. As Executive Officer of HMS Norfolk, he was present during Exocet trials in Toulon in 1974; an invaluable primer. In short, there could have been few officers as prepared by experience, education and training for the role of Commander Amphibious Task Group (CATG) as Commodore Clapp, and yet even he acknowledged the personal and collective gaps in his own and staff’s knowledge and skills.

Prior to 1978, Rear Admiral Woodward had little experience of surface or above-surface warfare and none of littoral or amphibious, and yet in 1982 found himself as CCTG. That Woodward was chosen to command the Carrier Group over the existing Flag Officer Third Flotilla, Rear Admiral Derek Reffell (the most experienced amphibious warfare commander in the Royal navy at the time) was a matter of consternation for both Clapp (Commander Amphibious Task Force) and Thompson (Commander Landing Force).3Their memoirs are full of the frictions between them and Woodward. That those frictions existed appeared to be news to Woodward, who in his second edition of 100 Days admitted to his lack of experience in both air and amphibious warfare, and failure to communicate adequately with his nominal equals, although he defended his place as the de facto in-Theatre commander. The problems with communication between the component commanders were undoubtedly exacerbated by the poor signals fit – Clapp and Thompson struggled to converse over the airwaves with both HMS Hermes (Woodward’s flagship) and Commander Task Force, Admiral Fieldhouse, in Northwood. Yet for all these frictions, we should remember that war is ‘an option of difficulties’ 4and if Woodward was, at times ‘careless’5, then we should always remember Turenne’s mantra: that wars are won by the party that errs least. What is clear is that, at times, the relationship between the component commanders more closely resembled Wentworth and Vernon at Cartagena than Wolfe and Saunders at Quebec.

Woodward’s contention that there did indeed need to be an in-Theatre commander with overall responsibility would have been news to Corbett. Indeed, Corbett stated that:

Since the elder Pitt’s time it has never been our practice to place combined expeditions under either a naval or military commander-in-chief and allow him to decide between naval and military exigencies. The danger of possible friction between two commanders-in-chief came to be regarded as small compared with the danger of a single one making mistakes through unfamiliarity with the limitations of the service to which he does not belong.

We should note, however, that Corbett does go on to discuss the function of a higher Joint Staff to sit over the respective component commanders as a means of adjudicating between the two. In 1982, Reffell’s staff was liberally purloined to furnish Woodward with the necessary personnel.

One of the contributing factors to this friction between the commanders of the carrier and amphibious task groups was that by 1981 the Royal Navy had essentially given up on the latter after only a very brief dalliance with it: Britain’s first and only peacetime amphibious fleet was a 1950s construct. Commodore Amphibious Warfare had been disestablished, and then re-established, in the years prior to 1982. With the decline of organic naval air support at sufficient mass, the likelihood of mounting an opposed theatre entry over the beach was slim to none; expeditionary forces would be disembarked in a friendly port – what Thompson characterised as the ‘red-carpet approach’ – and therefore the principal surface flotilla task was one of escort duty to transports.6 In some respects, this highlights exactly the kind of mind-shift discussed by Corbett:

The duties of the fleet do not end with the protection of the troops during transit, as in the case of convoys, unless indeed, as with convoys, the destination is a friendly country. In the normal case of a hostile destination, where resistance is to be expected from the commencement of the operations, the fleet is charged with further duties of a most exacting kind.7

With the expectation that shore-based aircraft would provide maritime air duties, and that the fleet’s primary purpose would be to contain the Soviets north of the GIUK gap, the Navy in 1982 was not prepared for the type of theatre entry, expeditionary campaign that it was about to embark on against a peer adversary.8The balm to this disconnect would have been found in doctrinal coherence and adherence; Allied Tactical Publication 8 (ATP 8) was and remains the established NATO practice for the conduct of amphibious operations. Yet, in 1982, both the Commander Task Force (CTF) (Admiral Fieldhouse) and the Commander Carrier Task Group dispensed with its guidance on establishing chain of command, and the Navy’s primary authority on amphibious matters was kept out of the planning process.9

Of course, there is a significant difference between peacetime planning, training, and the realities of war. What we can never know is the full extent of the reasoning behind Woodward’s appointment. Perhaps all we should know is that Lewin and Leach were adamant that they had appointed the right man to the job. In the event, they were probably correct. Unfortunately, the next matter of contention is one of continued debate: Brigadier Tony Wilson and the conduct of 5 Infantry Brigade.

 

Andy Young

Andy Young is a former Naval officer and Corps Tutor. He was the first Naval Lt to undertake the RN-sponsored Cambridge MPhil, sat on both the RM Education and Ethics Steering Committees, and contributed to JDP 0-10 UK Maritime Power Doctrine (5th Ed) and the 2019 Maritime Doctrine Primer.

Footnotes

  1. Molyneux, Op cit. Part 1: 210-211.
  2. Molyneux Op cit, Part 2: 40.
  3. Finlan, Alistair. The Royal Navy in the Falklands Conflict and the Gulf War: Culture and Strategy (London: Frank Cass, 2004): 74; Clapp, Michael. & Southby-Tailyour, Ewen. Amphibious Assault Falklands (London: Pen & Sword, 2007), Kindle Edition: Location 1676-1688
  4. Wolfe, letter to Rickson in Wright, op cit: 396-397.
  5. Woodward, Sir Sandy. in Dorman, Andrew, Michael D. Kandiah, and Gillian Staerck. The Falklands War (London, Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005): 67.
  6. Clapp & Southby-Tailyour, Op cit: location 526-537.
  7. Corbett, Op cit (1911): 285.
  8. Southby-Tailyour, Ewen. Exocet Falklands (London: Pen & Sword, 2014).
  9. Clapp & Southby-Tailyour, Op cit:

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