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'Down South' by Chris Parry
on 23 February 2012
".. impossible .. the Navy do not know the word .."
- General Carton de Wiart VC, Norway, 1940
1n 1982 Rear Admiral Chris Parry was the Observer of Humphrey, HMS Antrim's Wessex helicopter. In that capacity he became the only Fleet Air Arm Observer to incapacitate an enemy submarine since 1945, and he helped first insert and then rescue the SAS from a misguided attempt to enter South Georgia via the Fortuna Glacier, and experienced many other helicopter operations well beyond the safety parameters of normal peacetime practice. Every night he wrote, for himself, a detailed account of his and his ship's activities and his thoughts regarding them; for, as a graduate historian, he recognised that all other accounts would be informed by hindsight and rationalisation; his would be unvarnished actuality. He demonstrates this at the end where, the war over, he has to correct the ship's Report of Proceedings where some matters have been incorrectly recorded and some remembered `with advantages' as Shakespeare says.
In 2009 while sorting out for a house move the author rediscovered in a forgotten trunk this loose-leaf diary of the Falklands War, which is now presented to the general reader. We are assured that it is unedited except for the deletion of some items that would cause distress. Given the tart nature of some of his immediate (and apparently justifiable) comments on such targets as John Nott (I never have understood why he was knighted, that seemed to me to be on a par with Caligula making his horse a consul), Admiral Woodward, HMS Endurance and her captain, Cindy Buxton and her father, and unsurprisingly the BBC World Service, one can only regret losing what has been excised.
Endurance, whose captain was junior to Antrim's, particularly got up Parry's nose when her Wasps turned up late and uninvited at 'his' Santa Fe and, superfluously, fired expensive AS12s at her when she was already quite satisfactorily crippled, for which Endurance's Flight commander received a DSC (see Captain Nick Barker's book `Beyond Endurance' (Pen & Sword Books 2001) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Endurance-Whitehall-Atlantic-Conflict/dp/0850528798/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329751960&sr=1-1 ). Barker should of course be credited with warning Downing Street about Argentine intentions months before the invasion, for which he was punished by being denied further promotion.
Visiting QE2 Parry had a nasty encounter with two Guards officers (identified only as Rupert 1 and Rupert 2) who demonstrated exactly that mixture of stupidity, ignorance and arrogance which appears to me to have been the cause so many of their men being killed and maimed at Bluff Cove (for more on this see Lt Col Ewen Southby-Tailyour's book `Reasons in Writing' (Pen & Sword Books, 2003) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reasons-Writing-Commandos-View-Falklands/dp/1844150143/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329751994&sr=1-1
In its editorial approach to the conflict the BBC indeed gave little acknowledgment that it is owned by and is funded by a compulsory levy on the British people, nor that this war represented freedom and democracy pitted against a cruel dictatorship. However one cannot help surmising that the information it had in advance of the Goose Green attack and other matters must have been fed to it by a MoD Civil Servant.
Parry's comments on the sinking of the Sheffield give pause for thought. If the reported scuttlebutt is true one wonders how Captain Salt achieved further promotion - but then, he was a submariner.
Antrim's Padre comes in for the occasional gentle sideswipe as he takes some time to realise which way is up. He meets his Waterloo when he tries to confiscate Parry's beloved Wardroom uckers board so as to give it to the Argentine PoWs in another ship.
RN helicopter aircrew are antisubmarine warfare specialists and understand their quarry. Submariners per contra need know little of the air and this deficit surfaced in Woodward's initial estimation of the air threat he would face. Parry's attempts to correct this were not appreciated. Woodward (who seemed to Parry to show that he only took advice from people he liked and knew - a key defect in a Commander) preferred his ill-informed RAF staff officer's erroneous input. Parry permits himself a wintry smile when Woodward is publicly told by CINCFLEET, three days later, to revise his assumptions. Fieldhouse (another submariner) himself rubs Parry the wrong way on their only occasion of meeting, the day before Antrim berths on her return, by clearly not knowing what a Fleet Air Arm Observer is or does.
Another theme is the secrecy with which operations are planned, leaving the man at the pointy end who has to carry them out lacking a full intelligence picture.
As a General List officer Parry entered very fully into the life of his ship, which is well delineated with a wealth of `domestic' detail, including several entertaining dits and examples of matelot humour. When the Royal Navy goes to war it does not leave its sense of humour on the dockside. What also shines through is the Fleet Air Arm's can-do tradition, often an extension of the absolute, age-old determination of the Royal Navy never to leave Percy Pongo in the lurch. This, incidentally, is what informs Nick Richardson's book `No Escape Zone' (Little, Brown 2000) about his escapades as a Sea Harrier pilot over and in Bosnia in 1993 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Escape-Zone-Story-Journey/dp/0751531022/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329754309&sr=1-1 ).
I came to `Down South' from a background of service in the mid-sixties in a DLG (London) (in which I was one of the Flight Deck Officers and therefore somewhat in touch with Wessex operations) and a Leander-class frigate. I found this book compelling and highly informative - not only a primer on the role and tasks of an Observer, but as a refresher on how much our ships and weapons systems had moved on in that time - how much more so after twice that interval nowadays. As to the ship and her weapons, Parry includes a descriptive appendix which includes detail on the ship's organisation. My only cavil with that is some apparently optimistic figures for the performance of her guns. Where he touched on anything I knew something about, his judgments were sound, which has inclined me to trust the remainder. His reservations regarding some individuals are balanced by warm appreciation of others, particularly the ratings of his ship's flight, but also some of the other ship's captains like Captain Christopher Craig of HMS Alacrity (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Call-Fire-Combat-Falklands-Gulf/dp/0719554535 ). Parry is quick to notice and calumniate (but forebears to name) toadies.
The only judgment I truly find fault with is some of his condemnation of their Lordships regarding anti-air missilery. Of course Seaslug and Seacat were old kit but Seacat was optimised on exactly the sort of attack the A4s were carrying out and (Parry in 1982 wasn't to know this) as it was, as far back as 1969 it was planned to retrofit Seawolf for Seacat in the Leander and Tribal classes. As to Seaslug, it was indeed designed against the high level bomber, but it was conceived in the 50s. It was our failure to develop the technology to cast cordite for a tandem boost missile (like its USN contemporaries Terrier and Tartar) that lumbered us with the County Class' extraordinary magazine arrangements whereby the naval constructors had to start with the rigid box of the Seaslug magazine and design the rest of the ship around it. It is culpable that we remained locked to Hawker Siddely's Seadart when we were already negotiating to buy Exocet off the French (and were yet to start building the Type 42s). An indication that we were wasting our time defending against down-the-funnel shots and that sea-skimmers were the business was Styx, already a Soviet export, sinking the Israeli Eilat in 1967. The real problem in 1982 was the radar invisibility of aircraft over land, something only solvable with a Doppler radar. As it was Seaslug might have notched up the odd kill out in the open sea earlier on, but (as Parry points out) pusillanimous RoE restrictions imposed by Whitehall prevented its use.
Eventually Parry comes to terms with Woodward, recognising his strategic ability if resenting his rather wooden touch, and with his Captain. That moment comes after a rather cagey discussion that follows Parry trying to torpedo a strange submarine which successfully swam off submerged at 28 knots.
In case you wonder why we need yet another book on the Falklands, the justification for this one is its immediacy. That said, if you send several thousand people off to a war, they have several thousand deeply individual experiences. So, for instance, there is little here about the land battle, but few books cover so well the recovery of South Georgia. Antrim was then bombed fairly early in the proceedings in Falkland Sound and had first of all to be patched up, and was then used to return to the area of South Georgia to protect its supply route.
The sinkings of Coventry, Atlantic Conveyor and Belgrano are treated at length, the first too not without censure, the last with entire and carefully explained approbation. Sometimes one can feel the Fog of War closing in.
Given that the text was compiled by someone who was very busy and must have often been dog-tired, its literacy is a credit to Portsmouth Grammar School and Oxford University and one must therefore excuse the odd slip. Perhaps the regular diary writing was cathartic. Parry is an erudite and pithy master of the apposite quotation, and his (unsurprisingly) strong sense of history illuminates the work throughout; the narrative sets a rattling pace. One is grateful to his old shipmates and others for contributing so many original, apposite and often amusing photographs. Besides the account of each day's events, his real-time analysis of them is and will be highly valuable.
With the war over and Antrim heading home, there was time to look back and include a half-dozen `lessons learned' each day. Detail apart, the main one is that the Royal Navy must always practice and be prepared for all-out total war and not let any fudges creep in, let alone any corner-cutting like the use of artificial fibres in action dress, a dishonourable derogation of responsibility on the part of some fool apparatchik in the MoD with horrifying consequences. Si vis pacem para bellum.
Straight from the horse's mouth as it were, this book is an absolutely vital reference for any future historian of the Falklands conflict. It is a treasure trove of operational, tactical and technical detail, particularly for those who have traded the wardroom armchair for one that doesn't slide about any more. `Down South' will appeal to all who are wearing or have worn a blue suit - there's a fair amount of roughers that can hardly escape mention - and I feel sure the story will interest most who have worn khaki or whatever the current pretty pattern of combats is. My only gripe, and a minor one, is that I wish the publishers had stumped up for an index.
But just remember this is not an entertaining novel - it is the narrative of a ship and her people with their lives on the line.