on 13 August 2014
This is a compelling read made largely so by the thoroughness of the author’s research and the attention to detail that he brings to every facet of a revealing and vitally important historical work. Given his military background, and his involvement in the Falklands War there is probably no one better qualified to comment upon events which, whilst being enacted under the pressures of political machinations (both civil and military), fierce and exacting operational imperatives and the fear of exclusion from, possibly, the ‘last military adventure of the twentieth century’, were, in so many ways, a significant distraction from the main effort- that of retrieving a British territory.
S-T sets the scene with a subtle and telling perspective on a special forces ‘coup de main’ rehearsal involving the RAF, along with air landed vehicles and ordnance manned by a squadron of SAS. As has almost always been the way for SF at large, they are in the ‘options’ game, and, whilst ‘direct action’ tends to be at the forefront of the SAS mindset, this was never their sole raison d’être. The ‘myth’ of their success in this field probably originated with Stirling’s SAS ‘brigade’ in North Africa and, whilst the techniques involved will have been refined over the years, and have been fed by such parallel successes as the Entebbe raid, this ‘option’ has yet to be operationally put to the test by today’s SAS. RAF reservations as to the ‘success’ of both the Laarbruch and subsequent Kinloss exercises tend to put the option into sharper relief whereby any tasking authority reliance upon the tactics and techniques developed by the operators needs to be tempered with the reality check of good operational analysis and reliable intelligence. In the pursuit of ‘options’ the SBS has, over time, endeavoured to exploit the stealth of the underwater medium through the use of submarines and submersibles. The complexities here are immediately exacerbated by the question of survival in an alien and frequently less than benign watery environment. This, along, perhaps, with the sonar threat to the mother craft mirroring radar on an airfield, tends to accord such an option similar, and almost dismissively long odds!
In so vividly articulating the nature of the Exocet war, and the manner in which it focused minds, S-T makes some allowance for the plethora of hair brained schemes that were emanating from even the most peripheral of planning participants. Hindsight, as ever, makes experts of us all in discrediting ideas, but, as S-T points out, the manner in which ‘glorification’ was allowed to override rational thought and the scope for cerebral analysis demonstrates an arrogance which is difficult to countenance. In the ‘two up and bags of smoke’ scenario the time for deep, analytical thought is well past. In planning the ‘deliberate’ option, analysis is all essential. To dismiss OC ‘B’ Sqn for the application of caution on the basis of the issue of some exceedingly thin ‘elements of information’ and a frightening paucity of intelligence, reflects an almost fanatical desire to protect an ill deserved reputation-if dismissal was exercised ‘pour encourager les autres’ it speaks poorly of leadership assumptions as to the mentality of the men ‘under command’. Such a judgement extends even to Andy L whose actions during Plum Duff were borne of a laudable desire to live to fight another day in the face of impossible odds. It is heartening to learn that he has, at last, come to terms with the fact that he did not aspire to the ‘…traditions of the Regiment’. To any right minded individual his decision to abort was entirely sound. The failure lies in the perpetuation of a myth which began its life as a piece of clever propaganda, but has a habit of continuing to dupe some individuals, even at the highest level of command!
Despite the distraction of the SAS endeavour to influence the handling of the Exocet threat in a vain quest for yet more recognition and public acclaim, and the unorthodox manner of the SAS arrival at the ‘start line’ in theatre, their presence overall certainly had a bearing upon the outcome of the War, and they gained a full entitlement to rest on their laurels. Their ‘style’, whilst not to all tastes, has a habit of immersing them, frequently uninvited, at the scene of the action, and their readiness to ‘take a hit or two’ in the process is in keeping with their motto. The suppression of dissent permits the maintenance of the ‘mystique’ and thus the survival of the Regiment. However, as S-T incisively asserts, during the Falklands war there was always the potential for a major ‘asset’ issue, as is frequently the case with SF operations, and so the full implementation of the ‘distraction’, whilst always, in reality, highly unlikely, would almost certainly have had an adverse effect on the outcome of ‘conventional’ operations. In the aftermath of the war the Fleet Royal Marines Officer initiated the creation of a special forces command chain which would, hopefully, obviate the likelihood of such events ever repeating themselves. This, in time led to the full rationalisation of the SF order of battle whereby a Royal Marines major unit, the Special Boat Service, was stood up as one of two ‘generalist’ SF battalions. To all intents and purposes the ‘coming together’ has eliminated old rivalries and made for a healthy working relationship. This has involved compromises, mostly on the part of the SBS, but the ‘reconciliation’ is a testament to the ability and preparedness of the rank and file on both sides to harmonise. Whether or not such sentiment genuinely obtains with the top brass is, perhaps, a matter of conjecture. The apparent readiness of senior officers to jeopardise the outcome of a conventional war for the sake of regimental reputation and the perpetuation of an ethos, in 1982, has an almost mediaeval flavour. Only time will tell as to whether ‘Who Dares Wins’ can now meaningfully reconcile with ‘By Strength and Guile’ in the full realisation of a cost, and operationally effective UK Special Force!
on 27 April 2014
(publisher’s review copy)
Whatever happens, they have got
The Exocet and we have Nott.
Paraphrased from Mr Irfon Roberts’ letter to the Times 2.2.1983, paraphrasing Hilaire Belloc.
This is a very well-told and researched account of three disparate missions that were dreamed up to remove the threat to our Falklands War task force from air-launched Exocet missiles. One was aborted and two were cancelled, but their study provides lessons far beyond the difficulties caused by ‘Fog of War’. The stories of their conception exemplify a belief in action as a substitute for thought.
The author emerges from his other careers as yachtsman, Commando, and popular author as now a serious professional historian. The acknowledgments, let alone numerous attributions in the text, show how complete his inquiries have been, aided by his personal acquaintance with many of the senior players stemming from his own time ‘down South’ both before and during the Falklands War. His ability to tap into and interview Argentinians suggests an engaging personality.
We are first introduced to the political milieu in London where a cabal of sea-blind, anti-naval and defeatist FCO staff, Secretary of Defence (Nott), CGS and CAS were brought to order by First Sea Lord Sir Henry Leach’s intervention with the Prime Minister. S-T’s scathing criticisms are well justified and the only mystery is how the man who appears to have been the architect of our woes - for his plan to sell HMS Invincible and scrap the landing ships and the Ice Patrol ship must have sent a clear signal to the Argentine junta - was knighted after the war was over. Quite rightly the author does not suffer fools gladly, for in war fools cost lives and the more so the more senior the fool. Hysterical nationalism apart, S-T points out that possession of the Falklands gave the Argentines the opportunity to develop an air base out of range of their intended Chilean next adversaries.
We move on to the ridiculous, irresponsible and unprofessional refusal of the SAS, from spurious considerations of security but perhaps from other motives, to coordinate their activities with the other services.
The first mission recounted, Plum Duff, involved an idea of using a one-way trip in a naval helicopter to land a patrol on Tierra del Fuego to reconnoitre, and perhaps assault, the Rio Grande base from which the Exocet strikes were launched. This was planned in a complete intelligence vacuum with old maps (brought to us as illustrations in the book) that did not even show where the base was. Unsurprisingly this all went completely wrong.
I get the impression that the SAS seniors wanted the ill-briefed and ill-equipped Plum Duff patrol to perish so that the story of its want of planning, intelligence, and coordination would die with them. This bespeaks an apparent want of care, even contempt for the soldiers under command and their Fleet Air Arm chauffeurs. Previous exhibition of physical courage, however exemplary, is not enough in a commander. There has to be moral courage as well. For the senior echelons of the SAS safe behind their desks to set up a Roman Holiday for political purposes is not leadership, nor was the apparent later cowardly scapegoating of the (here anonymous) Plum Duff patrol leader, who took a very courageous decision to abort his patrol when it became clear that the sacrifice of his men could yield no useful outcome.
As it was there were two results - the destruction of a much-needed helicopter and the removal from the board of an RAF Nimrod which had been operating from Chilean territory and in Chilean airspace.
The pilot of the helicopter involved, Richard Hutchings (also RM), has told his part of the Plum Duff story in ‘Special Forces Pilot’ (cited).
‘Mikado’ was a hare-brained plan to land two Hercules at Rio Grande out of which would roar a company of SAS who would charge off and destroy the remaining Exocets, their Super Etendard carriers, and the aircrafts’ pilots. The concept was founded in an imbecilic false analogy between the Israelis raiding the well-lit, undefended civil airport at Entebbe and landing a Hercules against a defended military airbase. It would have cost us the only two Hercules capable of in-flight refuelling and thus of supplying the Falklands task force by air, and they would probably have been shot out of the sky before ever landing their troops. The story exposes the senior officers, of an RAF run until 2013 for and by fighter pilots, as managers rather than leaders (as later exemplified in relation to the losses of Chinook ZD576 in the Mull of Kintyre in 1994 and Nimrod XV230 near Kandahar in 2006). The intellectual shortcomings of the air marshals are contrasted with the can-do professionalism of the 47 Squadron’s Special Forces Flight.
The third adventure, Kettledrum, mercifully also called off, involved landing an SBS team at Puerto Deseado, an airstrip with no involvement in Exocet at all. For reasons of seamanship (see the chart in the book) the insertion from the submarine should have been seen to have been wholly impractical.
As the story unfolds Symonds-Tailyour gives us valuable correctives showing what real help we received from France, and also more cautiously from Spain and Chile. Per contra we see how the Argentine aggressors were helped by Israel under its anti-British terrorist leader Menachim Begin.
The work is densely packed with facts at every level. It is copiously and professionally referenced and indexed and is served by a comprehensive bibliography. We are well served by its maps. S-T has done an amazing job in obtaining photographs from British and Argentine sources, which I am sure are nearly all new to us.
I learned a lot from this book, in spite of having read an number of other works about the Falklands War, mostly by participants, and I had a number of misconceptions corrected. It includes the odd fine grain critique of some other previously published accounts.
on 10 October 2014
This is a meticulously researched history of a critical aspect of the 1982 Kalklands campaign, focusing on attempts to counter the Argentines' use of Exocet missiles against the British Task Force deployed to re-take the Falklands. A riveting story in every respect, and one which highlights weaknesses in British intelligence, inadequacy in mapping facilities and, worst of all, a pathetic lack of co-ordination between the two arms of UK's Special Forces. The tale is also a tribute to the painstaking preparations made by the RAF's Special Forces unit - often without support from the Service's higher echelons. Exocet Falklands should be at the top of 'must read' lists, not only at Service Staff Colleges but also for every serious student of military history.