The Falklands Thirty Years on – British Élan and the Aura of Power
By Julian Lindley-French
Field Marshal Bramall, Chief of the Defence Staff, Admirals Band, West and Woodward,Commodore Clapp, Lord Sterling, Major-General Thompson, distinguished guests and, above all, honoured veterans of the 1982 Falklands Campaign - there is no greater honour for me than to stand and address you on what you achieved all those years ago – the defence of freedom through the use of legitimate military power under Baroness Thatcher’s resolute leadership that has sustained Britain for these thirty years past. Sadly, it is an aura of power that in spite of the heroic efforts of your colleagues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and host of other places could fade if real national strategy does not replace London’s ‘only recognise as much threat as we can afford’ view of the world and with it a dangerous loss of national influence. What you did back in 1982 is as relevant to today’s Britain as past Britain.
As Europe crumbles and America stumbles we are faced as a country with a choice: to retreat into irrelevance and put up with whatever an unjust world throws at us; or to galvanise ourselves as you showed us how and set out to shape the world for the better. “For God’s sake, act like Britain”, former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk once demanded of George Brown. You did just that. You acted ‘like Britain’ - the Britain that millions of us out there still believe in, desperately hoping that today’s political leaders across the political spectrum can rise above the daily grind of party game and blame to which we are subject. Let me start by paying tribute to the 252 British servicemen who did not return and the 775 of you who were wounded. This was not a cost-free conflict. They never are. Equally, I can still remember the thrill of hearing the words of Major-General Jeremy Moore, Commander, Land Forces, South Atlantic as though they were yesterday. “Be pleased to inform Her Majesty that the Union Jack once again flies over Stanley. God save the Queen".
My theme tonight will be élan, British élan - defined as the determined pursuit of a strategic goal with a style and assurance that is itself power. Élan is something more than men and kit.
It is a strategic brand that can change things even before a bullet is fired. It is influence. 1982 saw a Britain that had retreated into a muddled foreign and security policy with strategy made elsewhere. 1982 saw a country in conflict with itself with many of the same doubts and tensions as today. And yet somehow you defied the all—pervading sense of decline and showed that Britain could still hack it.
Thirty years ago through your efforts, your valour and sacrifice you achieved four invaluable victories. First, you defended a fundamental principle which was far bigger than the islands or the Islanders – the right of self-determination and the use of great power to that end. Second, you reminded ally and adversary alike that the spirit of Britain pertained and that our old great country still understood how to exercise strategic influence fashioned as it was from a high-level of unity of effort and purpose. Indeed, implicit in victory was courageous political leadership, deft and determined diplomacy and the creative and sustained application of legitimate military power. Third, you reminded a tired and fractious British people at the end of a long, tired and fractious decade that Britain was more than a place, but an idea in which still to believe. No post-imperial basket-case but a powerful modern country that could when push came to shove distinguish between values and interests; principles and parochialism.
Above all you showed the world what my good friend Gwyn Prins called, ‘the aura of power’, that uniquely British blend of purpose, principle and pragmatism that made this country great and still can.
Let me take my key elements in turn. First, the defence of principle. Major Norman and the heroic April 2 defence by the Royal Marines of Naval Party 8091 had shown the way, supported by the naval hydrographers and the Falklands Islands Defence Force. I was under no illusions about what you were heading into. As an historian I was hardened against the ‘all over by Christmas push over’ talk that so often happens at such moments as the more enthusiastic and romantic tip over into jingoism. That said I believed passionately in the right of our cause. The Islands had been occupied illegally by a brutal dictatorship that had murdered thousands of its own. That could not be allowed to stand. Britain would be finished. Second, fighting power and fighting spirit. Yes, the campaign was as Admiral Lewin said, “a damned close run thing”. Admiral Woodward had a dangerous balancing act to perform. Hermes and Invincible were not fleet carriers, and there were not enough Sea Harriers for an effective CAP of either the task force or land force. Sheffield and Coventry were lost providing the radar screen for a Task Force that lacked airborne early-warning. Ardent and Antelope were sunk protecting the landing force at San Carlos. The landing force was too small according to military doctrine and the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor meant that many of the vital helicopters were lost and already absurdly long supply chains suddenly became even longer. Atlantic Conveyor, symbol of the doughty volunteers of the Merchant Navy, many not of these islands.
But, from the moment Chris Parry forced the Santa Fe to surrender by helicopter at Gritviken and Vulcan 607 holed Port Stanley airfield, the constant vigil of the ships and Sea Harriers, from 2 Para’s inspirational battle at Goose Green to the fighting yomp of the Royals, from the heroic efforts of the chopper pilots to re-supply to 5 Brigade’s stoic recovery from the tragedy of the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Bluff Cove/Fitzroy; from the poor bloody infantry struggles of 3 Para and, of course, 42 and 45 Commandos on Mount Harriet through to the Guards and Ghurkhas at Tumbledown and Mount Longdon, the will of the Argentinians was broken by something more than mere force. It was will that paved the way to the 14 June victory – a powerful mix of leadership and strategy, force and resource, flexibility and creativity that convinced the enemy that defeat was when not if. It was élan. There have been other examples. The 1991 Gulf War, the Balkans Tragedy, the decisive 2000 rescuing of the people of Sierra Leone from pending slaughter, operations in Southern Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and more recently Libya. The manner in which then Brigadier Richards led Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone in 2000 had all the hallmarks of British élan. Indeed, the way then Captain Zambellas took HMS Chatham up-river was reminiscent of HMS Warspite at Narvik in 1940. As BBC journalist Allan Little wrote, “It was an astonishing thing to witness: the fortunes of a whole country transformed in the space of a few days by a single, decisive intervention”.
Gwyn Prins told me that when he was in the Advisory Group to former Soviet President Gorbachev back in 1990 Gorbachev told him that it was your action that was an important factor in convincing him that the Soviet Union could never win the Cold War. Sad then that a senior Russian recently remarked, “the things we once admired about Britain are today the things that you despise”. Would a British Government today have the courage to instruct a Chris Wreford-Brown in Conqueror to sink Belgrano? Tragic it may have been but this was war. As Clausewitz said, and this will be my only piece of academic wonkery that I inflict upon you, “an offensive war requires a quick, irresistible decision”. As the fleet left Portsmouth an American friend said to me, “No-one else can do this. The sight of Britain galvanising itself, the white ensign to the fore, is a sight like no other”.
Third, the impact on the British people. 1982 was no Elizabethan golden age. Like now it was tough. Economic decline had to be arrested, like now. The country reeked of national decline. Tough decisions had to be taken, like now. The armed forces had for years been dragged through the streets and mud of Northern Ireland and had drifted to the margins of politics, like now. As a country we were slowly drifting into strategic oblivion having become all too used to the excuses of politicians as to why our national voice no longer counted for much. All seemed reduced to a question of pounds and pence. Pride in ourselves as a country seemed of another age.
You reminded us all that there was another Britain. Under Prime Minister Thatcher’s courageous leadership you showed a tired and cynical, some would say, defeatist political and bureaucratic elite all too willing and able to find ten reasons why action was impossible, that Britain could again matter. That is not to make a party political point - Tony Blair also understood that. That Britain’s place in the world need not be some tawdry accommodation between the American world view and the French and German European view. In short you bought us thirty years of strategic credibility.
And where next? With Argentina again on the make both the principle and place you freed thirty years ago must once again be defended. But there is a bigger national, strategic picture that needs to honour your sacrifice and your victory. Leadership today will mean forging a very new idea; an all-national unity of effort and purpose. That will mean inviting all in our land to be British, rather than trying to turn Britain into what my close friend Lord Glasman calls a mini-United Nations. This is mission critical as we sink ever deeper into the swamp of political correctness that is eating government and society from within with self-doubt.
Furthermore, as we move towards a 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review ‘strategy’ will need to be put back into ‘strategic’. For our armed forces that will mean a shift from a Europe-plus focus back again to a global role alongside our increasingly maritime strategic American allies, albeit one which balances strategic, austerity and influence. This can only be done through the creation of a truly joined-up force in which no one service owns land, sea or air and which is part of a truly joined-up security policy led by a national strategy worthy of the name. As someone famous once famously said, “Gentlemen, the money has run out. Now is the time to think”.
At the heart of British strategic influence will be state-of-the art armed forces that are projectable, deployable and sustainable built of a tight concept of fighting power for which the British armed forces are renowned, and which you demonstrated with such élan.
Thankfully, such unity of effort and purpose does now exist at the highest levels of the services backed up by the vision to make it happen. However, such unity needs to be preserved at all costs at what is a pivotal moment so that we can re grip the bigger picture for believe me the picture that this century paints will be enormous.
British defence strategy will also require some very clever decisions over the future force. Sound strategy always requires compromise – only the truly powerful have no need of strategy. BOTH aircraft carriers will be essential, as will a critical mass of Astutes, Type 45s, Typhoons et al. Our entire front-line Army will need to become the equivalent of the elite Paras and Marines of 1982, reinforceable by truly capable reserves. Our air force will need a global reach concept alongside the army and navy. To that end, I am encouraged to believe that 2015 might indeed see the beginning of a return to sound principles of British defence strategy based on a simple principle – Britain, Europe and the wider world is a safer place when we as a country retain the military power to lead. Not to dominate, but to lead. To realise such a vision there will be no room for political complacency, nor indeed yet more short-term political compromise which sacrifice the medium-to-long term balance of the armed forces for short-term expediency. Now is the decisive moment – the schwerpunkt.
Clever decisions will need to be reinforced by tough choices. The first step will be to make a decision once and for all about those two carriers and stick to it. Whether they have ‘cats and traps’ or not misses the essential point; the two ships will be central to our strategic brand for much of this blue water century and cost must be offset against value and seen as such across a forty to fifty year service life.. Nuclear forces – can we really fund them fromthe defence budget without leaving the conventional force wholly unbalanced?
Above all, we must hold our nerve; all the basic components are in place for a powerful modern navy, army and air force - our future force.
One thing I can tell you – this century ain’t going to get any easier and like it or not whatever happens to Britain there is no hiding place for us.
To conclude, what you achieved thirty years ago was not simply to rescue the Falkland Islanders from a brutal dictatorship; through your élan you also saved Britain from a visionless self and made a proud people proud. We are still Britain. We are still Great Britain if we so choose. Long may it be so.
Why does this all matter? It matters because influence is the key to security and British influence still matters and must matter in a dangerous world. You showed us the way.
Thank you all. Thank you very much indeed. I honour you all. I salute you all.