Obituary: Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward, Naval chief

Sir John 'Sandy' Woodward. Picture: PA
Sir John 'Sandy' Woodward. Picture: PA
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Born: 1 May, 1932, in Penzance, Cornwall. Died: 4 August, 2013, in Bosham, West Sussex, aged 81.

ADMIRAL Sir John Woodward, always known as Sandy, became a UK household name in 1982 when he led Britain’s riskiest but ultimately most successful naval campaign since the Second World War. Ordered by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he commanded the Royal Navy Task Force which, transporting army troops and Royal Marines, retook the Falkland Islands after the Argentine invasion. During the six-week war, more than 600 Argentinians were killed along with 255 UK servicemen and three Falkland islanders.

A Rear-Admiral at the time, it was Woodward who on 2 May that year, a day after his 50th birthday, personally gave the order to sink the naval cruiser General Belgrano, killing 323 of its crewmen, seen in Argentina as one of the greatest tragedies in the nation’s history. While The Sun famously splashed the front page headline “Gotcha”, he was considered a war criminal by many Argentinians. He always defended his famous decision, although it was criticised, even in the UK, because the Belgrano was outside the “maritime exclusion zone” and steering a course away from the British Task Force when Woodward ordered the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror to fire its Mark 8 torpedoes.

The Belgrano and its two escort destroyers were “close enough to constitute a very real and serious threat”, he insisted. “It’s very simple. There was the Belgrano and two destroyers armed with Exocet missiles milling around in the southern ocean. I know from experience that while they were within 200 miles of our ships, they could have us overnight. So I wanted them removed, didn’t I?”

His conscience was eased when the Belgrano’s captain Héctor Bonzo later made clear he had had every intention of turning and attacking the British Task Force if ordered. The Argentinian Air Force was quick to take revenge and two Super-Etendard fighter planes fired Exocet missiles at the destroyer HMS Sheffield, which had been the former submariner Woodward’s first surface command years earlier.

The world watched as the Sheffield went up in flames, 20 crewmen were killed and Britons woke up to the realities of a war 8,000 miles away.

Back home, Woodward became pretty much a national hero, was knighted soon after the conflict, promoted to full Admiral in 1987, and served as Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, when he was often invited to Cabinet meetings by Mrs Thatcher.

“I found her to be the best top executive I’d ever met,” he said. He was also appointed Flag Aide-de-Camp to the Queen, a largely symbolic post traditionally given to a senior naval officer.

“Undaunted by the challenge of fighting a capable enemy more than 8,000 miles from the UK, in the most demanding and extreme of weather conditions, and against uncertain odds, Admiral Woodward’s inspirational leadership and tactical acumen, meshing the realities of the higher political command at home with the raw and violent fight at sea, was a major factor in shaping the success of the British forces in the South Atlantic,” Admiral Sir George Zambellas, First Sea Lord, said after his death.”

Over the last few years, having retired in 1989, Woodward hit the headlines when he criticised defence cuts, including the ditching of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the Harrier jump jets which flew from her.

“It’s appalling,” he said. “We could not retake the Falklands. We could not send a taskforce or even an aircraft carrier. If we had been in this state in 1982, the Falklands would be the Malvinas.”

He told The Daily Telegraph: “I accept change, but not serious change for the worse. If you are a naval professional, then a Navy without an aircraft carrier and the right aircraft on board is comparable to the Swiss navy.” (Landlocked Switzerland has no navy, only a few military patrol boats on its lakes).

John Forster Woodward was born on 1 May, 1932, in Penzance, Cornwall, giving him an early whiff of salty sea air which would influence his entire life. His father, a bank cashier, had fought in the Great War.

Sandy, as he soon became known, attended Stubbington House preparatory school in the village of Stubbington, Hampshire, a school which became known as “the cradle of the Navy”.

Teachers said he had a gift for maths and for playing bridge.

Instead of secondary school, he went to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Devon, aged only 13. In the 1950s, he started off in submarines, passing the Royal Navy’s tough submarine command course, the “Perisher”, in 1960 and later becoming officer-in-charge on the same course.

Fellow submariners nicknamed him “Spock”, which he rather liked, and he commanded several subs, including the Second World War-vintage HMS Warspite before “surfacing” as commander of the guided-missile destroyer Sheffield in 1976. He could never have dreamed of the vessel’s tragic demise in the South Atlantic six years later.

By the time Argentinian General Leopoldo Galtieri stunned the world by invading the Falklands on 2 April, 1982 – making a historic claim to sovereignty but also trying to deflect Argentinians’ attention from his junta’s “Dirty War” against those of democratic persuasion – then Rear-Admiral Woodward was Flag Officer, First Flotilla, commanding spring exercises in the North Atlantic from the flagship aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

Almost immediately, he and the ship were steaming towards the Falklands and a new, makeshift flotilla of Royal Navy and requisitioned civilian vessels, including the ocean liner SS Canberra, were in their wake.

During their long voyage to war, Woodward made morale-boosting helicopter hops from the Hermes to other vessels in the Task Force. To assembled crews, he put on his best “Spock” visage and told them: “You’ve taken the Queen’s shilling. Now you’re going to have to bloody earn it. Your best way of getting back alive is to do your absolute utmost. So go and do it.”

During the voyage, he famously told a BBC correspondent: “I’m not in favour of blowing peoples’ heads off.

“However, as a loyal servant of the government, if I have to blow peoples’ heads off, I’ll do it in the most efficient and effective way I know.”

Knighted in 1982 (KBE), Woodward saw his knighthood upgraded in the year he retired, 1989, to GBE (Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire). In his memoirs, One Hundred Days, co-written by journalist Patrick Robinson, he said that “no-one would ever have heard of me but for the events of 1982”.

The title came from the fact that, for Woodward it was a 100-day war – from the Argentinian invasion until his victorious return to UK shores.

Woodward settled on his beloved south coast in the village of Bosham, West Sussex, just outside Chichester, where he pursued his hobbies of skiing and philately but most of all sailing out of the historic Bosham Sailing Club.

Having separated from his wife of 33 years, he sailed and raced along with his companion Winifred Hoult, better known as Prim, in their small yacht Melody, a 16-foot Devon Yawl.

Sir Sandy Woodward died after a long illness.

He was separated in 1993 from Charlotte McMurtrie, whom he married in 1960. He is survived by their son and daughter and by his companion of 20 years, Prim.