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Myths & mistakes of the Falklands War: We ask Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward


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Thank Gawd we've got a Navy, indeed :)

Myths & mistakes of the Falklands War: We ask Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward

Commander Nigel David ‘Sharkey’ Ward, DSC, AFC is a retired British Royal Navy officer who commanded 801 Naval Air Squadron during the Falklands War. We asked him his view on British air operations during the 1982 war in which he fought.

If you could have changed one thing about British air operations in the Falklands what would it have been?

“There are two subjects that continue to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

One is the completely disingenuous propaganda campaign conducted by the Royal Air Force immediately after the war which sadly persuaded the gullible British public that they, the RAF alone, had won the air war over the Falklands. The full story of this deception and attempt to rewrite history is told in detail in my new book, soon to be published.

Suffice it to say here that the Sea Harriers of the Fleet Air Arm conducted 1,500 war missions over the Islands. The small detachment of RAF ground attack Harriers in HMS Hermes flew about 150 sorties of which less than half were combat oriented. All the air to air combat kills were achieved by naval aircraft (indeed, it is worthy of note that all air to air kills by British forces since 1948 have been achieved by naval aircraft – not one by RAF aircraft – and yet they claim they won the air war in Operation Corporate, the Falklands war).

Adding insult to injury, the propaganda campaign glorified the small but extremely expensive part that RAF Vulcan bombers played in the conflict. The real facts are that of the 63 bombs dropped by the Vulcan in three missions against Port Stanley runway, only one bomb was on target and that only damaged the side of the runway which was repaired on the same day. The four other Vulcan missions delivering anti-radar missiles only managed to hit one small radar emitter, that of a radar-controlled anti-aircraft gun on the outskirts of Port Stanley. These seven missions had no material effect whatsoever on the course of the Falklands conflict. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking.

The suggestion that the Nimrod aircraft played any effective part at all in or near the combat zone is also facetious propaganda.

The second ‘bad taste’ is an in-house naval affair.

HMS invincible had been formally given the responsibility of Anti-Air Warfare Control (AAWC) ship which principally meant having full and direct control over all Sea Harrier assets, including those in HMS Hermes, for Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties on the outer ring of Task Force air defence. The AAWC established three permanent CAP Stations to the South-West, the West and the North-West of the San Carlos beachhead. Invincible’s instructions to the Sea Harrier air groups onboard each carrier were very clear. Each station had to be manned by a pair of Sea Harriers who would have to conduct their patrol at low level, thereby providing an up-threat barrier against incoming Argentine attack aircraft. HMS Hermes, the flagship, had 50% more Sea Harriers than Invincible and these were needed to ensure a complete and secure barrier against incoming threat aircraft.

What happened? Without informing Invincible, the Flagship ignored the AAWC and instructed their Sea Harrier CAP aircraft to station themselves directly above San Carlos Water at 20,000 feet.

This provided no deterrence at all to attacking aircraft. Low-level CAP Stations were left empty and through these empty stations came the enemy fighter bombers and delivered their attacks against beachhead units and forces. As a direct result, several warships were attacked and disabled or sunk: including HMS Ardent and HMS Coventry. After releasing their weapons and as they left the beachhead area, more than a few Argentine aircraft were destroyed by the overhead CAP aircraft – but it was “after the horse had bolted” and at the unnecessary cost of many brave lives and several ships. The loss of HMS Sheffield in the open ocean was also a direct result of the Flagship re-tasking CAP aircraft from the air defence barrier to search for surface contacts, again without any ‘by your leave’ to Invincible. An Étendard aircraft penetrated the empty CAP station and delivered its deadly Exocet attack.

Despite all this Flagship interference, 801 Squadron low-level CAP aircraft managed to turn away more than 450 Argentine attack missions. Without this success, the war could well have been lost.”

What was the biggest mistake of the Royal Navy?

“Bearing in mind that this round of Hush-Kit interviews relates to Operation Corporate and retaking the Falkland Islands, I find this question rather odd and misleading.

When Argentina invaded South Georgia and the Falklands, the firm response (to Maggie Thatcher in the hastily convened War Room) from the Chief of the Air Staff and the Chief of the General Staff was that the Air Force and the Army were powerless to intervene. The then Defence Secretary, John Nott, who was a rabid critic of maritime power (about which he knew nothing) immediately tried to prevent the Prime Minister from listening to the Chief of the Naval Staff and First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach. Nott was overruled and Sir Henry informed Mrs Thatcher, “Yes, Prime Minister. I can assemble a Task Force forthwith and retake the Falklands.” Delighted, she told Sir Henry to make it so.

That was how Operation Corporate was born.

Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief Fleet was appointed Task Force Commander and Royal Marine Major-General Jeremy Moore was appointed Land Forces Commander. He in turn appointed Brigadier-General Julian Thompson as Amphibious Brigade Commander. Sir John Fieldhouse appointed Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward, then Flag Officer Mediterranean, as Commander Carrier Battle Group and Commodore Mike Clapp as Commander Amphibious Group. The Naval Service therefore provided all the Commanders of the Task Force elements (the Royal Marines, of course, being part of that Naval Service). By their own admission, the RAF could not provide any combat aircraft in support of the Task Force.

A stark reminder of what it's like in the Infantry in battle. I know some of the people mentioned so I'll have to pick up that book!

As a former 2 Para corporal, John Geddes knows all about the brutal reality of war.

In a viscerally vivid new book, he reveals the inside story of the battle of Goose Green, the crucial victory that helped win the Falklands War 39 years ago - but cost the lives of VC winner Colonel "H" Jones and 16 other British soldiers. This is our final extract:

As we marched across the mile or so of barren landscape that lay between us and the settlement of Goose Green, the ceaseless moan of the bitter wind that scoured the Falklands was punctured by the notes of a familiar tune. It was the theme to Dad's Army - whistled by one of the lads in my platoon.

"We're going to pop over to the airfield and see who's over there," our captain had said when we set off five minutes earlier. "Shouldn't take long. We'll probably mop up a few Argy air force personnel and that'll be that."

There seemed no reason to doubt his word. We thought that the main enemy defences had been dealt with in the brutal fighting that had claimed the life of my boss, Colonel "H" Jones, back at the gorse gully under Darwin Ridge.

But we hadn't gone more than 50 yards when the whistling of Dad's Army was replaced by the whistling of incoming mortars, accompanied by the murderous chatter of machine-guns and loud booms as anti-aircraft missiles were fired straight at us. Soon the sharp crack of anti-tank rockets joined in the symphony. These were fired from pods the Argies had stripped from a disabled aircraft and strapped to a slide in the playground at Goose Green school, using a car battery to power the trigger. Very inventive!

All along the line of the ridge ahead of us, enemy machine-gun bunkers revealed themselves with stabbing points of muzzle flashes and streamers of tracer rounds.

There were snipers at work too. Single-shot Mauser rifle bullets ranged in and smacked the ground too close for comfort - each one specially delivered for your individual death.

"Move! Move! Move!" Here we go again. It was the second time in the space of a day that we'd advanced into battle in broad daylight across open ground in full view of the enemy, but this was the hairiest yet. I was shaking like a dog.

The sheer weight of the enemy firepower was incredible. The Argies had so much ammunition that they had insulated their trenches with ammo cases and even used them as duckboards at the bottom to keep their feet dry.

In most trenches they were literally standing on more ammo than an entire 2 Para company could carry. And what we could carry was all we had to fight them with: we had no back-up vehicles.

The top brass in Britain had accepted the word of some old duffer living on the Falklands who told them that Land Rovers could not be driven across the terrain there. I ask you! What did they think the sheep farmers used - magic carpets?

Right now, there were so many munitions going off that cordite smoke billowed towards us in black clouds. We took it as a welcome gift - in some places that smoke was the only cover we had.

"Come on! Come on!" I shouted at the lads and we gritted our teeth and raced forward in a desperate search for cover. This was utter bedlam.

Fire and manoeuvre. Stay low, move fast. We were pushing our luck to the limit - and as we ran, crouched, fired, then ran again, men were going down wounded all around.

A Para called Tony Tye went down to my left, shot in the upper arm. Dave "Chopsey" Gray dashed over to dress his wounds - and had his own leg ripped off by an anti-aircraft shell.

There were bits of blokes everywhere. I saw half of one guy's arm draped over a tussock of grass like a lost glove.

Our officer commanding, Major Roger Jenner, went down with his gunner and radio operator after a shell made a direct hit on his tactical headquarters unit.

Another radio operator ran forward to retrieve a machine gun dropped by the wounded gunner. He had the weapon in his hand as he gave an update on the radio. "We've got three down."

Whack. A round struck him. "Make that four! I've been hit too." He died almost as the words left his lips. What a man. He kept doing his job right up to the end.

Rounds marked by our own red and white tracer were now whining over our heads, fired by our machine-gunners in the hills behind us.

Suddenly we realised that their fire was so close that they were about to whack us too. Later we discovered why. They had mistaken us for the enemy because some of the Argies came from a special rangers unit and were wearing black woollen combat hats like our own.

In the end, a couple of the guys had to take their red berets out of their pockets, stick them on the end of their bayonets and wave them around. It did the trick and saved us from a friendly fire disaster.

Amid all the hellish pyrotechnics of war, one of the guys screamed out an order to home in on the school, which had been sand-bagged and fortified by the Argies. "Top floor. Schoolhouse. Rapid-fire!" came the cry.

The whole platoon opened up simultaneously and our bullets ripped into the top floor of the building, turning window frames into matchwood.

"Fix bayonets!" came the next order. Hell, this was getting serious.

We fixed the steel on our rifles and headed through the maelstrom towards a saltwater creek which was "dead ground" - out of the range of enemy fire. The tide was out and a thick mesh of saltwater plants rested on the slimy mud, while all around us were the rotting carcases of dead sheep.

The stench made our stomachs churn. This really was dead ground but at least it was somewhere to take a breather as we planned our assault on the school.

Huddled in this ditch, we were joined by other Paras who had headed into Goose Green from a different direction and encountered similar enemy resistance. They had grim news.

Out at the airfield, some of the Argies had shown the white flag, only to shoot three of our men dead as they approached their trench to negotiate the surrender.

The cowardly bastards! This was against all the laws of war. I was seething. We were all seething.

I looked up at the school where Argies were pouring fire out of the windows and from trenches in the playground. Killing under a flag of truce! Trenches in a playground! Automatic rifle fire from a school!

What the hell were these s**** doing in a place where kids should have been learning and playing? I felt an ice-cold anger sweep over me.

Those Argies in the school were going to get some. And I could feel that very same anger pulsing almost tangibly from the men kneeling around me.

Baz Greenhalgh, our company sergeant major, was the senior rank in our group and he uttered two simple words that had inspired men all day on that battlefield. "Follow me!"

Thanks to the desk dobbins back at the Ministry of Defence, we had been given rifles which only fired single shots, useless against an enemy pumping out bullets on automatic, but we had discovered that by jamming a matchstick into the mechanism, we could fire them in short bursts.

And that was how we dashed towards the school, matchstick warriors, shooting as we ran. When the Argies opened up again, we discovered that we were caught in their crossfire, so we slammed up against one of the wooden walls of the building and dropped to the ground.

My heart was pounding but I felt no fear at that moment. Breathe in! Breathe in! Right, what next?

I looked around me and saw one of our lads starting to post grenades through a window and me and another bloke joined him. Six deafening explosions went off almost simultaneously, turning the school into a charnel house.

Flames flickered inside. Desperate voices shouted in Spanish. Shadows moved past the windows.

Running to the front door, I swung my boot around the frame and kicked it in. I remember feeling suddenly vulnerable. "Where the f***'s my helmet?" I thought.

I still had my stupid black woollen hat on. Good protection from cold. Not so good for lead.

Almost immediately, air rushed past me into the hall, fuelling the blaze with a surge of fresh oxygen. A firestorm roared up inside and I swung my rifle into the open doorway and started firing.

Inside the building, I could see hideous stumbling silhouettes and crumpled figures that had once been men. It looked like a scene at Pompeii, after Vesuvius had blown its top.

One of the lads covered me as I leapt ten feet into my next position. As I moved, the retreating Argies fired a missile from the impromptu rocket launcher strapped to the slide in the playground. It screamed through the building, cutting a vicious vapour trail between me and another Para who dived out of the way just in time.

By now things were really hotting up. Two of our Harriers screamed over us and had a run at the antiaircraft guns that were smashing rounds into the schoolhouse, the Argies apparently not bothered that they might be taking out their own men, too.

Two misses and the cluster bombs the Harriers had been carrying killed fish as they exploded in the sea just off the settlement. A fuel tank was ablaze near the school and somewhere in the distance an Argy ammo dump went up.

As we poured through the enemy ranks, we took no prisoners. We didn't shoot anyone with their hands up or under white flags. They just didn't have time to get their hands up.

But beyond the schoolhouse, we discovered yet another line of Argy defence. Another firestorm, and we took cover wherever we could.

Along with some other guys, I jumped into one of the dugouts just vacated by the Argies. We pulled corpses out of the bottom of the bunker and piled them up onto the rampart to give us some extra cover.

Argy rounds whacked into Argy bodies as we crouched and waited to make our next move.

A few yards away, some of the other guys had found some dead ground in the hollow created under the swings by the local children's feet. Dead ground dug out by kids!

My second-in-command Steve Jones was with them. Suddenly an incoming round clipped the tubular steel frame of the swings, ricocheted and smacked into him. His hands went up to his chest. The other lads looked on in shocked silence. He'd been hit.

Then he lifted his hands away and found that the Argy bullet had been stopped by empty magazines he'd thrown into the chest pocket of his smock in the last engagement. Nice souvenir.

As for me, I had other worries. The trench I was sheltering in was in the direct view of the next layer of Argy machine guns. So much enemy fire was coming at us that it was almost as if we had painted a bullseye around it. We were in a really dodgy position, pinned down and in danger of being dead meat as soon as the Argy mortars gave us any attention. We should have been falling back to re-organise, but Baz Greenhalgh, an old-time Para, wouldn't have any of it.

The sergeant-major's blood was up. He'd decided that no Argy was going to push him back. Ever.

"I'm not going back," he said. "OK?" I could see there was no arguing with him, but we couldn't stay where we were. We were in deep trouble.

"We're not going back," I said, "but we'll go sideways." Thankfully he agreed.

The volume of fire was massive and I took my webbing off and threw it behind me, so that I could lie flatteras I crawled to the side, into dead ground. It took me a lifetime to do it. All of ten minutes. But it nearly was my lifetime as rounds smacked into the ground all around me until I made it into cover.

Then, something weird happened. The sun was about to set and it drew a curtain down on the battle. There was no formal ceasefire - but both sides stopped fighting. Suddenly we were being ordered to withdraw.

It was a strange anti-climax after action so intense. We walked like half-living androids and returned to the gorse gully where Colonel "H" and some of our best mates had died earlier that day.

As we walked through the smoking holes of the gully I noticed that half the Argy dead there weren't wearing boots - and I knew why. In another triumph for our civil servants, we had been issued with boots made of reconstituted cardboard, posing as leather. They appeared to have been specially designed as cold-water footbaths for the rapid culturing of trench foot - a terrible condition that is the bane of soldiers' lives and makes the flesh on your feet blacken and die.

Some of us believed that the clods who'd ordered our footwear must have been in the pay of the enemy.

Obviously some of the boys had helped themselves to the Argies' better quality boots, just to survive. I never wore the standard kit anyway, preferring U.S.-issue jungle boots I'd picked up on exercise.

The gorse gully was a bleak, depressing place. We had very little food and we knew that we'd have to sleep out in the open again. It was going to be a miserable, energy-sapping night and we didn't know what fighting the morning would witness.

Although we'd given the enemy a hell of a beating and seemed to have them cornered, the truth was that we were down to just half a clip of ammo each and it was we who were really under siege. They had us outnumbered and outgunned and if they came out of their corner fighting we'd be in big trouble.

Our edge was the terror we'd instilled in those of the enemy who'd witnessed first hand the formidable way we fought. Fear is infectious and it was clearly spreading through the Argy ranks at Goose Green.

The next morning they surrendered, their commander Colonel Piaggi believing that he was completely surrounded by a force superior in number and firepower simply because of the hammering we had given them.

Three hundred British Paras, outnumbered by four to one, had taken on 1,300 well dug-in Argentine troops who had massive fire-power and defeated them against all the odds.

That night of the surrender was pretty bizarre. Goose Green was filled with screams of torture. It wasn't the Argy prisoners - we didn't touch them. We just left them glowering at their officers who'd requested and been allowed to keep their side arms to protect themselves from their conscripts. What an army!

No, the screams came from us Paras who were having rationed baths. A lot of the guys had put masking tape on their thighs before the battle to stop their ammo pouches chafing but they couldn't soak it off in only two inches of water so they were ripping it off each other.

Later, the islanders put on a film for us in the community centre, an 8mm version of a western called Soldier Blue which was full of violent battlefield scenes. That went down like a lead balloon!

For most of us it was a quiet, inward-looking time. Paras like to think that gallows humour and a cynical shrugging off of adversity are the currency they deal in and that's true - up to a point.

But the loss of our mates who'd been killed and the injuries that a lot of our other mates were having to bear left us feeling a little bit more hollow than we'd been before the battle.

That night, snow fell over the islands and when we awoke the next morning, our padre asked for volunteers for a sensitive job. He had commandeered a Snowcat, an Arctic warfare tractor that tows a heated trailer, and wanted our dead brought in off the battlefield.

"They've been there long enough," he said. I joined two other lads in the cab while Kev Mortimer and Pete Myers from my patrol got in the trailer at the back. With the battle over, we could wander freely over the white landscape as we looked for our mates - the crimson medals of the blood on their Para smocks staining their shrouds of snow.

Kev found Private Tam Mechan of D Company frozen to his machine-gun. His finger was still on the trigger and he was still smiling in death. Kev gently prised him from his weapon and tears froze on my eyelashes as I helped put brave Tam with the others.

The Snowcat trailer was eventually full and there was nowhere for Kev and Pete to sit, so I suggested what we were all thinking. "You'll have to go on top of the guys," I said.

Young Pete looked horrified. "I can't do that!" "It'll be all right," I said. "We'll cover them with rain ponchos and make a nest on top with sleeping bags. Because they're your mates, they won't mind."

They climbed carefully on top of the pile of heroes' bodies and we drove back across the battlefield to the church at Goose Green where the padre was waiting for us.

There, when I lifted up the canvas on the back of the trailer, I found Kev and Pete. They'd fallen fast asleep with their friends.

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I read Sharkey's book about 6 months ago. Great read, and he'd be in jail now for the stunts he pulled as a subbie and LT.