Tributes flood in for heroic leader of Falklands Task Force

Sandy Woodward aboard the flagship HMS Hermes during the Falklands campaign
Sandy Woodward aboard the flagship HMS Hermes during the Falklands campaign

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He was a decisive leader to whom the country owes a huge debt of gratitude.

That is how Admiral Sir John ‘Sandy’ Woodward has been remembered today, following his death from a long illness.

The 81-year-old is best known for his success at leading the Royal Navy to victory in 1982 in the retaking of the Falkland Islands.

But there is much more to the story of the lifelong sailor and naval officer, who joined the navy as a schoolboy in 1946.

After training at the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth, Adml Woodward became a submarine specialist in 1953, serving in three vessels before going on to command another three.

During his time serving in submersibles, he married Charlotte Mary McMurtrie in 1960, and the couple went on to have a son and daughter.

Adml Woodward took up roles at the Ministry of Defence and senior training posts from 1971.

But he could not stay away from the seas for long, taking command of HMS Sheffield between 1976 and 1977.

It was from that point his career began to accelerate.

He served as director of naval plans between 1978 and 1981 before finding himself leading the naval task force to the Falklands in 1982.

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

Despite suddenly finding himself fighting a war, he faced the challenge head on.

Recalling his experiences last year, he told The News: ‘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.’

His leading role in the Falklands thrust him into the limelight.

He said: ‘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.’

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

He was given the controversial go-ahead from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to sink any Argentine warships outside its national waters, an order which led to the sinking of the Belgrano.

Adml Woodward would later describe Mrs Thatcher as the ‘best top executive’ he had ever met and praised her command during the Falklands war – despite never speaking to her.

That soon changed as he found himself sitting in Cabinet meetings with the formidable Prime Minister between 1985 and 1987 as deputy chief of defence staff.

Despite being knighted in 1982, Adml Woodward spoke of his nervousness when intervening in military matters during meetings, but was told by a senior civil servant that most people ‘don’t survive’ interrupting Mrs Thatcher when she is in full flow, as he did in a later meeting.

In recent years, Adml Woodward became an outspoken critic of the current defence cuts which have left the navy without any carriers for a decade.

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

Speaking to The News last year, he said: ‘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.’

The Prime Minister led tributes to Adml Woodward.

David Cameron said: ‘The admiral was a truly courageous and decisive leader, proven by his heroic command of the Royal Navy Task Force during the Falklands conflict.

‘We are indebted to him for his many years of service and the vital role he played to ensure the people of the Falkland Islands can still today live in peace and freedom.

‘My thoughts and prayers are with Adml Woodward’s family and friends at this difficult time.’

LAST night the government of the Falkland Islands paid tribute to Adml Woodward.

It said: ‘The people and government of the Falkland Islands were very saddened to hear of the death of Adml Sir Sandy Woodward.

‘They recall with gratitude the important part he played in the liberation of the islands.

‘Their thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this sad time.’

Sukey Cameron, the Falklands government representative in the UK, tweeted: ‘Sad to learn of the death of Adml Woodward; remembering with gratitude the important part he played in Falklands liberation.’

IT WAS an honour and a privilege to see Adml Woodward at work, even in the most tense moments of the Falklands Conflict.

That’s how one of the admiral’s former colleagues has remembered him after serving alongside him on board flagship HMS Hermes.

Jeff Tall is a retired navy commander and former director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport.

As well as commanding submarines during the Cold War, he served as Adml Woodward’s submarine staff officer on board HMS Hermes during the Falklands Conflict.

‘When Sandy was Flag Officer First Flotilla, he was promoted to Task Force Commander for the Falklands War.

‘I was named his submarine staff officer for the duration of the war on board HMS Hermes.

‘It was a real privilege to serve with him and watching him at work.

‘It was hard going, and very often difficult watching him having to make decisions but it was a real privilege to watch.

‘He was a fantastic commander.

‘The country owes a huge debt of gratitude to him.

‘It is a very sad day.

‘It was a real honour to have been able to serve with him and to watch him at work.

‘The battle was hard fought.

‘The Argentines were not pushovers, and it took a tough and clever man to see it through. The implications of failure were enormous.’

FIRST Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas has said Adml Woodward will be sorely missed.

The man in charge of the Royal Navy was among those to pay tribute yesterday.

He said: ‘Adml Sir Sandy Woodward will always be remembered for his powerful and clear command of the Royal Navy Task Force that retook the Falkland Islands in 1982.

‘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, Adml 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.

‘Highly regarded and widely respected within the military, he will be sorely missed.’

Adml Woodward transferred his flag to the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier HMS Hermes on April 15, 1982.

Although his naval history was centred on submarines, his pedigree was such that he was given command of Britain’s most powerful naval fleet in decades. During the journey south, he told a BBC correspondent: ‘I am not in favour of blowing people’s heads off. However as a loyal servant of the government, if I have to blow people’s heads off, I’ll do it in the most efficient and effective way I know.’

DEFENCE secretary Philip Hammond has hailed Admiral Woodward as the navy’s ‘fighting admiral’.

Paying tribute yesterday, Mr Hammond said: ‘I am saddened by the news that Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward, has died.

‘My thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

‘Adml Woodward served his country with distinction throughout his career, but he will be best remembered by many as the navy’s fighting admiral after he led the Royal Navy Task Force, sent by Margaret Thatcher, to retake the Falkland Islands in 1982.

‘Following this magnificent achievement he served as the deputy chief of the defence staff and went on before retirement to be the Flag Aide-de-Camp to the Queen.’

After the war and up to his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1989, Adml Woodward held a number of senior naval posts including being Flag Aide-De-Camp to the Queen.

The role requires a person to provide assistance to the monarch in their area of expertise.

‘He was a no-nonsense, blunt speaking commander - the sort you need in war’ - click here to read The News tribute to Sir Sandy