‘We didn’t plan for the Falklands...it was on the hoof’

Admiral Sir John 'Sandy' Woodward at his home in Bosham
Admiral Sir John 'Sandy' Woodward at his home in Bosham
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Michael Powell meets Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, the man who led the navy to victory in 1982

Even at 80 years old, Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward cuts an imposing figure.

He’s tall, wiry and fixes you with a penetrating stare as he forms his first impressions. Thankfully, he warms as he ushers me through to the back garden of his charming cottage in Bosham, which has stunningly beautiful views of Chichester Harbour.

‘We just love it here,’ he says as he takes a seat on the terrace, lights a cigarette and relaxes in the sunshine.

You would hardly guess that 30 years ago this was the man whose steel and determination led the navy to victory in the Falklands War.

Newly promoted to Rear-Admiral, he was in Gibraltar when news came of the Argentinian invasion.

He says: ‘Every spring we’d take most of the fleet to sea for a couple of weeks and do exercises on the way down to Gibraltar.

‘Then we’d have a week’s jolly on The Rock which was quite a traditional event and ended with a Royal Marine band and everyone in full regalia in a terrific evening concert.

‘It was the best self-entertainment for the navy in peacetime and an amazing contrast to what then transpired.’

Over the next two months, Sandy went from being largely unknown to the commander of the Falklands Task Force, eventually in command of 100 ships.

But one of the most peculiar things about the war, Sandy reveals, is that he predicted what date the fighting would end.

Drawing up a strategy at the start of the conflict, he told his superiors the war must be over by June 14.

He was spot on.

‘It was luck really,’ he admits. ‘But we could not have done anything else.

‘If we had gone on much longer, the off-shore surface fleet would have fallen apart from a lack of maintenance and the exposure to the elements and the enemy.

‘I would say we could have gone on another week or 10 days, but the planned endurance was until the second or third week in June and the date we set therefore was June 14 to make sure we could do it well in time.’

He acknowledges the Argentinians were ‘in a poor way too’ but adds: ‘If they had held out for another week it would have been a much more questionable outcome. The whole operation was that finely balanced.’

As he recalls those historic events in 1982, the Admiral says he’s struck by the number of ‘peculiar perchances’ which conspired at the time.

He says: ‘Argentina had originally intended to invade in their spring, which would have been September 1982, but it was triggered by the sailing of a nuclear submarine HMS Superb which actually was going off home to do something quite different.

‘Admiral Jorge Anaya, who was the Argentine junta Admiral, interpreted it as coming south and feared that it would stand in the way of them doing an invasion because Britain would keep a submarine there indefinitely.

‘So he laid on the invasion at three days’ notice and that precipitated the whole thing. To a degree, that affected the efficiency of their whole operation because they did it in a tearing hurry a few months earlier than they’d planned.’

The invasion came as the Conservative government was about to decommission the navy’s two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, which were instrumental in providing the air support to win back the Falkland Islands.

Sandy, who is an outspoken critic of the current defence cuts which have left the navy without any carriers for a decade, said: ‘The Argentinians carelessly invaded five months earlier than they’d planned, so it was by chance we still had our carriers running.

‘If they had invaded entirely as they’d planned in the September, the Falklands would now be called Las Malvinas. It was extraordinary good luck.’

He adds: ‘It was an operation we were not prepared for. We had not planned for it at all. It was all on the hoof. It is amazing really that it went as well as it did. We made many mistakes, but none of them was critical, and on the whole we made fewer mistakes than the opposition.’

The fact he was in charge of the operation was itself entirely by chance, he says.

Of the three seagoing Admirals available, the main man eligible for the job had only just taken up the post after being desk-bound for three years.

The other Admiral was in Plymouth at the time.

‘Had it been six weeks earlier or later it would not have been me,’ he reflects.

Despite suddenly finding himself fighting a war, Sandy confronted the challenge head-on.

He says: ‘I was not concerned about it. It was just a job to do. I didn’t spend or waste too much time worrying about whether it could be done or not. You just had to go and find out. I might have found out we couldn’t do it but that’s the business of being a military commander – politicians make the decisions and you’re at the sharp end of it.

‘I’ve been asked about whether I was excited, surprised, taken aback, or whatever, and the answer is no, not really. I’d been training for years to do this job.’

Sandy Woodward is of the old school. He joined the navy in 1946 as a schoolboy and most of his career had been as a submarine commander. His leading role in the Falklands thrust him into the limelight.

He says: ‘Obviously, it affected me personally in that I became a sort of public figure which is something I’ve never enjoyed.

‘That was something that was difficult to take initially but I’ve got used to it since. I’ve learned to live with it.’

His biggest regret, he says, is not making more of the navy’s role in the Falklands.

‘When I came back from the Falklands in 1982 about the first thing I said to my commander-in-chief who met me at Brize Norton was “how do you want to play this?” He said “oh, low key.”

‘That was a silly mistake on the navy’s part.

‘He should have said “make the most of it”. We should have said “if you have not got a navy you would not have the Falklands any more and this goes for everything else around the world”.’

These days, between pursuing his hobbies of reading, yachting and hand-rigging a scale model of a 19th-century fighting ship, Sandy spends much of his time keeping up-to-date with defence issues and bitterly stating the case for a strong Royal Navy.

It’s a passion that has seen him rail against the government over its recent cuts.

He says: ‘It’s easy to forget sitting comfortably in a small village in the south of England that actually our commercial interests are global and we need a strong navy to avoid turbulence with the various places that we trade with.

‘It’s clear enough to me why we need a navy with aircraft carriers in it and nuclear submarines, but naval public relations has been seriously at fault for far too long.

‘There was a near total lack of awareness from 1982 onwards of the need for PR to sell the navy and make the public aware of what the navy did for you and that the navy offers value for money.

‘The navy took itself for granted for centuries – and quite reasonably so – right up until after the First World War and maybe a bit thereafter. But it has lived on that reputation for too long, rather than saying “hey you need a navy for the following reasons”.

‘We’ve been living on our past, perhaps living in our past, and it’s very foolish.

‘I don’t think anybody in the military would disagree with the view that we could not have regained the Falklands without the aircraft carriers and naval air power.

‘But politicians don’t appear to have a clue about defence.’