BRITAIN only narrowly avoided a military disaster on a par with the “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Falklands conflict, reveals a new book by a field commander who took part in the campaign.
In the book, Ian Gardiner, who in 1982 led a rifle company of Royal Marines into battle, is scathingly critical of senior army officers for tactical blunders in the battles to retake the islands, which led to catastrophes such as the bombing of the Sir Galahad.
He says that the reputations of the army chiefs “were salvaged from a mess of Crimean proportions” only by the ranks below them. He adds that mistakes in the campaign to retake the Falkland Islands, which were invaded by Argentine troops 30 years ago tomorrow, could have resulted in the deaths of hundreds.
The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war, when a cavalry regiment charged in to the “Valley of Death” at Russian guns, is a celebrated example of the bravery and heroism of individual soldiers sacrificed by poor planning and leadership.
In The Yompers: With 45 Commando In The Falklands War, Gardiner argues that a “precipitate and ill-thought-out” move in which 2 Para “hijacked” the only working Chinook helicopter and flew to take possession of Fitzroy and Bluff Cove, leaving them in an extremely vulnerable position forced the commander of Land Forces in to a very difficult position.
Gardiner claims that during the 12 days it took for the rest of 5 Infantry Brigade to move up in support of the Paras, a Chinook packed with other Paras was almost shot down by British artillery, 600 Scots Guardsmen were nearly sunk at sea by a British warship, four British soldiers were killed when HMS Cardiff shot down their helicopter, a landing craft from HMS Fearless was bombed, killing six men, while 50 men – the majority of whom were Welsh Guards – were killed when the Argentine air force damaged the Sir Tristram and destroyed Sir Galahad, two troop carriers.
Gardiner argues all these incidents were a consequence of poor planning. He writes: “These disasters and near- disasters were individually the results of many and various factors, but they were all part of the struggle to balance 5 Infantry Brigade after its initial, precipitate, ill-thought-out move.”
Yesterday, he said: “Because the Falklands War was victorious, the cock-ups were overlooked at the time – but people should be aware of them. The British Army knew they made mistakes. At some point between leaving Britain and arriving at the Falklands, 5 Infantry Brigade went from a garrison force to a fighting force and wasn’t properly trained or equipped.”
The initial plan was that 5 Brigade would garrison the islands after recapture. This made strategic sense, Gardiner says, as the brigade had recently been stripped of its two most battle-ready units, 2 and 3 Para, which were transferred to 3 Commando Brigade. In their place was slotted the Welsh and Scots Guards, who had recently been committed to ceremonial duties in London and lacked the equipment and training for a winter war.
Also the brigade’s senior commanding officers had not taken part in appropriate military exercises and, Gardiner argues, lacked the experience necessary for joint warfare and the understanding that each manoeuvre needed to be co-ordinated with other elements.
However, the chief of the defence staff decided that 5 Infantry Brigade, which Gardiner describes as a “semi-trained, improvisory, ill-supported and unready formation” would now be fighting. The brigade then made a tactical error that could have had serious consequences for the whole campaign to reclaim the islands.
2 Para, which was now back under the command of the 5 Infantry Brigade, learned that there was no Argentinian troops at either Fitzroy or Bluff Cove – points of high ground deemed to be of great strategic importance. The command of 5 Brigade then authorised the commander of 2 Para to take a single Chinook helicopter, packed with men, and then fly 50km where they then took control of the two areas.
The problem was that now the troops were isolated and vulnerable to an Argentine attack. As Gardiner writes: “An inherent problem was that the brigade was hobbled with poor communications and no usable transport of their own. They had no means to back this move up and had not consulted those upon whom they would have to depend to do so.
“When he heard about it by accident, this bold but unilateral initiative placed the commander of the Land Forces, Major General Jeremy Moore, in a very difficult position. He either had to tell 5 Infantry Brigade to undo it, or immediately back them up.”
A withdrawal would have humiliated the Paras and would have been difficult to explain to the government, Gardiner says. However, in order to back them up the campaign’s already fragile logistic chain would now be stretched almost to breaking point.
Moore reinforced 2 Para by advancing along the exposed and predictable southern route expected by Argentinian forces, a manoeuvre that only ended 12 days later when British troops captured Sapper Hill.
He adds: “The reputations of the army chiefs were salvaged from a mess of Crimean proportions only by the innate spirit of their soldiers and junior officers, the battleworthiness of the Parachute Regiment and the dogged gallantry of the Scots Guards at Tumbledown Mountain.”
Gardiner went on to command 40 Commando Royal Marines between 1994 and 1996 and left the military with the rank of brigadier in 2001. He is now a military historian and motivational speaker.
Sir Lawrence Freeman, a historian at Kings College London, who wrote the official history of the Falklands War, agreed with certain of Gardiner’s points but offered a partial defence of the orders made by senior commanders.
“There were certainly problems with 5 Infantry brigade, but two points should be noted,” he said. “First, there was a basic problem which stemmed from the lack of helicopters after the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor [which was sunk by Argentinian Exocet missiles in May, 1982]. Many of the difficulties faced stemmed from this. Second, General Moore wanted 5IB to go the southern route precisely because the Argentinians were expecting that and so would keep them distracted from the parallel advance by 3 CDO brigade.
“If one is going to speculate on how bad things might have been – but weren’t – one might as well say that if Atlantic Conveyor had not been sunk, things could have been much better. These things happen in war.”