How did the Falklands War challenge British leaders?

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Excerpt from pp.13-5,  Chapter 1, Prelude to War, where the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy convinces Prime Minister Thatcher that Britain must take action despite the concerns of most others in the government:

. . . The evening of Wednesday, 31 March, Nott finally requested an urgent meeting with Thatcher and others. There was no question that some unusual activity was underway. There had been reports of overflights of the islands. An Argentine C-130 had even made an ‘emergency’ landing on the Stanley airfield recently. Intelligence had confirmed for him now that an Argentine naval task force was heading toward the Falklands, apparently with the purpose of invading within two days. He was in the process of discussing the gloomy scenario and the bleak options with Thatcher and others in her room at the House of Commons, when a knock on the door interrupted them. Admiral Henry Leach, Chief of the Naval Staff with the title of First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, stood in the doorway in his naval uniform and asked permission to attend the remainder of the session. Leach had just returned from a day trip to the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment and read the latest intelligence reports. He was not impressed with Nott’s assessment and was very much opposed to his weak position on the situation. He and the Secretary had not had a cosy relationship. Leach, in fact, had infuriated Nott by lobbying against cuts to the Navy with the opposition Labour Party.

Like some others in the military, Leach had been keeping close tabs on what was developing. He had heard about the meeting in the House of Commons and, although he was not invited, decided to go anyway. At the time, a sizeable part of British naval forces were exercising in the Mediterranean under the watchful eye of his subordinate Admiral John Fieldhouse, a former submariner and now Commander-in-Chief Fleet. Leach had already contacted Fieldhouse on the side the week before and told him to start thinking about moving ships to the South Atlantic. Now he was gatecrashing the Prime Minister’s meeting to offer exactly that solution. Eventually, Thatcher asked Leach for his opinion on the situation, and he told her without equivocation that Britain’s role in international affairs would matter little in the future if it did nothing. After some discussion, Leach claimed with confidence: ‘I can put together a task force of destroyers, frigates, landing support vessels. It will be led by the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. It can be ready to leave in forty-eight hours.’17 His confident assertion must have reminded some present of George C. Scott’s rendition of the famous American general in the movie Patton when Scott, portraying Patton, told Bradley that he could move his armoured forces 150 miles north in three days to reinforce soldiers surrounded by Germans at Bastogne. Patton had the advantage at least of some mobility, if only in the shape of his marching troops. But units cannot march across water, and at the time Britain had no troop transports to move its military and few cargo- compatible ships to support them, not even a hospital ship. Leach’s claim might have seemed even bolder to those in the meeting since he further stated with the same confidence that the British task force could retake the islands if required, telling Thatcher all he needed was her approval. She and perhaps others apparently still had not grasped the challenge that lay ahead. When Thatcher asked Leach how long it would take for such a force to reach the Falklands, he replied about three weeks. Clearly not grasping the distance and perhaps even the challenges the United Kingdom would face, Thatcher questioned, ‘Three weeks, you mean three days?’, but Leach emphasized, ‘No, I mean three weeks. The distance is 8,000 nautical miles.’

Leach left the meeting with Thatcher’s approval to proceed with planning, although the Prime Minister withheld approval to execute until she had discussed matters further with her Cabinet. She reserved for them the decision if and when the task force would sail. Leach had not convinced his direct boss, though. Nott remained with Thatcher after the admiral’s departure, expressed his reluctance and told the Prime Minister he had many doubts about Britain’s ability to respond effectively, and specifically ‘about the logistics of fighting a war 8,000 miles away without air cover from land-based aircraft’.  He certainly had reasons for concern. In the history of war, one would have to search far to find comparably bold ventures in force projection. Nott had received counsel earlier from Permanent Secretary of Defence Frank Cooper, when Cooper praised British military prowess in going to war: ‘John, what you must realize is that war is really about getting men and equipment from A to B and they can be brilliant at it.’ Nott was about to learn that Cooper was right. . . .

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