The Memoir You Should Read, but Probably Haven’t
From St. Augustine’s Confessions to Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis and The Second World War there are no shortage of great memoirs from history’s most consequential figures. Then there is One Hundred Days by British Admiral John Foster “Sandy” Woodward. Outside of Britain, Woodward’s memoir is perhaps known only to naval officers and hard core history buffs.
This is a shame for the memoirs of the Royal Navy’s task force commander during the Falklands War, which ended 37 years ago today, makes for not only great reading for fans of history, but takes you inside the personal stories and stresses of a man tasked with leading men at war. What makes One Hundred Days, first published in 1992, such a great read is that it is not just a memoir for the next generation of naval officers, but is written in a way that is accessible to the layperson. While talk of the intricacies of naval war in the missile age could get lost in the weeds, Woodward tells a deeply personal story.
Woodward did this on purpose, he writes in the book’s preface that he selected Patrick Robinson as his co-author precisely because he had not served in the Royal Navy and because he believed “hiring a proper naval historian” would be “the kiss of death.”
When Britain went to war in 1982, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward knew that if Britain were to be successful a whole litany of things would have to go right, but if just one of them went wrong, the task force would have to turn around and go home. One can feel the strain on the man tasked with commanding the largest British military operation since the Second World War and who was only chosen to commander the task force because he happened to be leading a training exercise in the Mediterranean when Argentina invaded. He had the fate of nearly 2,000 Falkland Islanders, but also the fate of thousands of sailors, and the eyes of a nation bearing down on him that looked to him to maintain the nation’s honor.
Woodward was a military man through and through. He did not suffer fools (i.e. politicians, journalists) well. Regarding the press, Woodward wrote, “The Press, as far as I was concerned, could do something very difficult to itself.” As for politicians, Woodward is intensely critical of Defense Minister John Nott and would spend his retirement blasting British politicians for cuts in defense spending, particularly to the navy. At one point comparing the state of the Royal Navy to that of the Swiss Navy (Switzerland as a landlocked country, of course has no navy.)
One Hundred Days puts readers on the flag bridge as Woodward faced life and death and history changing decisions. Woodward knew that if the task force was to be successful, that ships would be sunk and that men would die under his command. He was a hard-nosed fighting admiral who took big risks — just the sort of commander needed for the mission.
One of Woodward’s gambles was to start landing operations before air supremacy over the islands had been established — operating 8,000 miles from home in the middle of the South Atlantic with winter fast approaching, the British were simply running out of time. On May 25 the destroyer HMS Coventry was positioned north of Falkland Sound in an attempt to draw Argentinian fighter-bombers away from the landing forces unloading in San Carlos Bay, dubbed by the British as “Bomb Alley.”
Coventry would be sunk by Argentinian fighter-bombers and her skipper Captain David Hart Dyke, who would write his own memoir entitled Four Weeks in May in 2007, that became the basis for multiple television documentaries, described the move to position Coventry north of the sound: “It’s like a game of chess. You’ve got to give up some pieces to get checkmate in the end. I was one of those pieces.”
History buffs will be find the portion of the book that addresses the decision to sink the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano nearly a month before the loss of Coventry incredibly enlightening. Belgrano, with her 15 six-inch guns and her Exocet-armed destroyer escorts formed the southern portion of an Argentinian pincer that was closing in on the task force in early May. The aircraft carrier Venticinco de Mayo and her Exocet-armed escorts formed the northern pincer. For casual readers the episode reads like a drama.
In another one of his daring moves, Woodward, a former submariner himself, broke the chain of command and ordered the submarine HMS Conqueror to sink the Belgrano. Woodward had protested Whitehall’s refusal to place the three British nuclear submarines in theater under his command, but Whitehall had refused to budge. He knew that London would have one of two reactions: “Such a breach of Naval discipline can imply only two things — ” he would write, “either Woodward has gone off his head, or Woodward knows exactly what he is doing and is in a very great hurry.”
Ultimately, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was consulted and the prime minister gave the go-ahead to sink the Belgrano.
Belgrano would go down with the loss of 323 hands, the large loss of life made the sinking extremely controversial, especially as it occurred outside of the 200 mile declared exclusion zone. Woodward never wavered from his conviction that Belgrano had to be sunk, saying the loss of life was due to Belgrano being abandoned by her escorts. Belgrano had also stood down from battle stations and was therefore not fully compartmentalized when the British torpedoes struck.
Later, Thatcher would be accused of ordering the sinking despite the fact the Belgrano was sailing way from the task force and that by ordering the sinking she made a peaceful solution impossible. Woodward had little patience for politicians, but developed a strong respect for the Iron Lady. He defended her decision: “The speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention.” Thatcher would die just a couple of months before Woodward in 2013, but not before he wrote, “Certainly, I found her to be the best top executive I’d ever met.”
Woodward’s fear of Exocets was realized just two days later when an Argentinian Exocet hit and eventually sank the destroyer Sheffield, which Woodward had commanded six years earlier.
But, what makes One Hundred Days great is that it shows Woodward’s personal side. Without a minesweeper to sweep the waters of Falkland Sound before landing ground forces he ordered the frigate HMS Alacrity sweep for mines the old-fashioned by sailing through the sound. Woodward describes his anguish in conveying the order: “Now, I did not particularly relish the prospect of ringing up Commander Christopher Craig and saying, ‘Tonight I would like you to go and see if you can if you can get yourself sunk by a mine in the Falkland Sound.” Instead, Woodward came up with a mission that required Craig to sail around East Falkland, harassing enemy positions and sinking anything that moved.
Recognizing what was being asked of him, Craig said to Woodward, “I expect you would like me to find out whether there are any mines there.” Reflecting on the episode, Woodward wrote that, “I personally felt awful not to have had the guts to be honest with him and wondered what the devil he was going to tell the ship’s company about their task tonight and about my pitiful performance, which for a sea-going admiral to one of his commanders, beggared description.”
Alacrity would survive the mission and the war.
From One Hundred Days the reader gets a sense of just how closely the British came to having to give up the fight, but the Union Jack would eventually fly over Port Stanley again. Woodward knew that to achieve victory, ships would be sunk and while Woodward was tough, he cared deeply for his men. In his last signal before hauling down his flag, Woodward would say, “As I haul my South Atlantic flag down, I reflect sadly on the brave lives lost, and the good ships gone in the short time of our trial… as we return severally to enjoy the blessings of our land, resolve that those left behind for ever shall not be forgotten.”
Woodward’s account of a war that has largely been forgotten about outside of the belligerent powers, which is a shame. For not only did the Falklands War give the islanders back their freedom, it also was the end of an era in British military history. British defense journalist Robert Fox said in 2013 when Woodward died that, “You run from Drake, you run even from the formation of the navy, say around Henry VIII, you stop with Sandy Woodward.”