Admiral Sandy Woodward KBE GCE

John “Sandy” Woodward (b. 1933)

A British Admiral KBE GCE who joined the Royal Navy in 1946 at age thirteen. He became a submariner, his first command was in 1969, the nuclear hunter-killer Warspite. In 1978 he was appointed to the Ministry of Defence. Woodward was promoted to Rear Admiral and in 1981 appointed Flag Officer First Flotilla. In 1982 he commanded the South Atlantic Task Groups in the Falklands War under the Commander-in-Chief Lord Fieldhouse. For his efforts during the war John Woodward was knighted. In 1983 Woodward was appointed Flag Officer Submarines and NATO Commander Submarines Eastern Atlantic. In 1984 he was promoted to Vice Admiral, and in 1985 he was a Deputy Chief of Defence Staff. Before retirement in 1989 he also served as Commander of the Naval Home Command and Flag Aide-de-Camp to the Queen.

At HQ the business is cool-headed management. You are into careful planning and the assessment of chances; you have to disengage from the battle cries and the hot lead. You are always hearing first-hand reports of damage and disaster, and your job is to distance yourself because they are naturally highly emotive, almost confusion factors. If you don’t distance yourself you can become frightened and distressed, and that will cloud your judgement. Despite your cares, you have to calculate the odds, the gains and the losses.
The decisions I liked least were when I had to send friends in harm’s way when, of course, I couldn’t go in myself; they were very uncomfortable. I remember ringing up the Captain of Alacrity, Commander Craig, on the secure telephone to ask him to go through Falkland Sound at night. Before landing in San Carlos we needed to find out what was going on there, how difficult the passage would be by night, and whether the opposition had laid any mines. I said, ‘1 want you to go into the Sound, have a look round and keep them on their toes. If you find anybody, do what seems necessary .Come out the northern end and be back offshore with the battle group by dawn.’ I wasn’t going to tell him about the mines; I dissembled because I never wanted to put the frighteners on my captains any more than I had to. But Craig, bless him, saw through me straight away: ‘Oh, I expect, Admiral, you’d like me to go in and out of the northern entrance several times before I come home?’ Realizing I’d been rumbled, I replied, ‘Well, that’s quite a good idea, but why do you suggest it?’ And he said, ‘I imagine, Admiral, that you want to find out if there are any mines in the northern entrance.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it’s funny you should mention it, but we would be very glad to know and we’ll do our best to bail you out later if we can. ‘I thought it was a bloody brave thing to do: a small ship, hundreds of miles from home, on his own and knowing damn well the risks involved, which in this case were high. I had already assessed that there was no other way to do the job, and, probably, so had he. He had seen instantly what I wanted and had accepted it with humour. Fortunately, it all turned out well

Throughout the campaign I was surrounded by men I knew and could trust and by men who also knew me, and one of the good things when doing the cool planning bit was knowing that others were doing it too. Most days on Hermes my life settled into a routine, albeit a routine I’d never done before. With the management of a large force you’re trying to build a picture of everything that’s going on, and there was a mass of periodically repeated tasks to do in a fairly routine manner. You have to follow everything that’s going on in order to find the odd thing because it’s the odd feature that you’re going to have to deal with. You must be ready for the unexpected that can come at you from nowhere, as it did to the poor old Sheffield in three and a half minutes flat. I was often encouraged to go off and visit the other ships, but I never felt that was part of my job. I always thought that things could go wrong very quickly and to be absent from my place of duty on Hermes wouldn’t be too sharp. For instance, I remember when Sheffield got hit and the information came into our Ops Room, where we all were, one or two people were very badly shaken. Voices were raised and getting louder and one said, ‘Come on, Admiral, you must do something!’ I had to say, ‘No. Leave it to the people on the spot. There’s one frigate already there with a helicopter, and another frigate on the way. All we need to do is tell the chap who’s there first to take charge of the on-scene action. If we get involved with the tiny detail we’ll only bring the operation to a grinding halt.
On that occasion there had been a near-panic reaction; people were pressing me to do something, when all we had to do was sit cool and calm. Panic is infectious. I’ve always been conscious that the way the Captain performs his duty is vital to morale. In a ship you usually do your business from the Ops Room, so the crew can always look to the Captain when things go wrong, and if he’s looking worried, that sort of panic can spread very quickly. Unlike a land force leader, you’re comforted by the familiarity of your surroundings and the danger may be less immediate, but even when you’re 100 miles away from where it’s actually happening and you’re sitting in a large tin box with a low light, people still need to turn to the place where the boss is sitting to see what’s written on his face.

The Ops Room on Hermes was about fifteen feet by fifteen feet with fairly low lighting in order that we could see the various radar screens and monitors. I had a funny little cabin just down the passage, about nine feet by nine, with a little bunk, a tiny table and a shower: a cell, really. About twenty people worked in the Ops Room checking the data with a Group Warfare Officer on watch, doing the minute-to-minute management of the battle group. Normally, comparatively junior officers would have held that position, which would have meant calling the Admiral every few minutes to take a decision. I thought that I was likely to be down south for a long while and that if called to make decisions that any Captain could make I would be running around all the time and incapable of doing the long-term thinking or planning. So I chose to change the system and co-opted Captain Buchanan and Captain Woodhead for the job. They worked twelve hours on and twelve hours off from late April until July and did marvellously well. Both Captains were friends of mine and had worked with me before, so it was a very easy relationship. I don’t know how I would have got through without them.I wasn’t physically tired but, like everybody else, I was mentally tired from the strain. I realized that I could go on for a couple of months without any real exercise because I’d done that before, and I made a point of keeping myself as rested as I could. You can remain alert and in good, decisive, reactive condition for very long periods as long as you look after yourself, almost cocoon yourself. When I’d done it before, I didn’t sleep for more than forty-two minutes at a stretch, and that was once in two months. You can only do it easily if you’re used to it. You have to discipline yourself.

I used to find when I got back to my cabin after being in the Ops Room I’d sit down and say, ‘Well, what about writing a letter home, or reading a book, or watching a chat show on the internal television?’ Then I’d say to myself, ‘Now, hang on a minute. Just think through yesterday again, or the day before. Think through what you intend to do next week and whether there is any way you can find a solution for that problem which has proved intractable so far. Just remember you’re here to do a job. Go over and over things again.’ So, in the end, even had it gone wrong, I would have been able to say to myself, ‘Well, I did give it the absolute maximum amount of thought and time I possibly could. If in the end my solution was found wanting, well, so be it, it was wanting, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

As manager of the organization, there are lots of things you have to keep to yourself- you live with your responsibilities. I found my diary a great safety valve. You can get rid of the steam and hassle of the day and you feel better when you’ve done it. But no one should take too much notice of what’s written; often it’s just the steam. I think my diary was my main outlet for my feelings. On the way south we didn’t know we were going to war, but we might have been, so there were a lot of conflicting requirements on what I said. I had to convince the workforce, my own blokes, that we could do a good job and we had a good chance -you don’t tell anyone they’re going to lose, even if you think they are. Then there was the opposition: the message I wanted to pass on to the Argentinians was one of determination, efficiency and confidence. Bearing in mind the national characteristics of the Argentinians, I was slightly more pushy in what I said to them; my own workforce may not have been able to take it, but the opposition probably needed it. Then there was the home market to consider, ranging from the Prime Minister to the man in the street- they all wanted to hear something. In the face of such demands and constraints the only safe answer was to say nothing but, of course, you’re not allowed to do that. As a con sequence I got variously interpreted and variously misunderstood. I most regret being reported as saying, ‘What I expected is a walkover .’ I know that sometimes you think you’ve said one thing and it’s heard as something else, and I accept entirely that Brian Hanrahan, a bloody good, objective journalist, reported it the way he heard it. But what I actually meant was something very different: I said I would much prefer a walkover, in the sense of a tennis match where your opponent doesn’t turn up and you’re given a ‘walkover’ .The press had a field day, Private Eye talking about the ‘jumpy little bugger’ saying ‘it’s going to be a walk over’. That caused a lot of trouble back home and I had to live with the repercussions for awhile.I think PR is important but at the time I had rather more worrisome things on my mind. The thing is, it’s not my trade. If I were an actor or a politician it would be different, but I hated the publicity .Going from a Captain of a ship to Admiral of a whole group of ships means you go from being a bit-part actor to the lead actor where all the lights are on you and the microphones are everywhere. That can put you off balance, and I had to learn the hard way. I was never one of those people inclined to do the one-act play. I’m not a stage sort of person. I’ve always preferred to do my business from the edge of the stage. I therefore found the change to being an Admiral and, indeed, an internationally known one, extremely difficult. I’d been rather pitchforked into the front of the limelight business.

Some of the men were very apprehensive about the probability of actually going to war. It was the biggest fleet of British ships to sail since South Korea and, of course, most of us had not seen active service before. I joined the Navy in 1946 at the age of thirteen and a half but I didn’t go to sea until I was seventeen and a half. The first time I’d really had to face the fact that I might have to go to war as part of my profession was during the Suez crisis in 1956. Up to then the Navy had been away of life rather than a job where you might get killed in action. I had to explain this commitment to a lot of young people on the way south. One man’s contract had expired a few days after we sailed, but as a fully trained man, I told him we had to keep him. He took it very well. Professionals have no choice other than to go along, and I must say that during the campaign I never had to exhort people to do things. There were always too many willing to go -I had to hold them back.

As we went further south there was a strong sense of time pressing, because the whole operation could only last for a limited period. We knew we hadn’t got a forward base and therefore we would eventually run out of everything. We said to ourselves, ‘It isn’t a cliff edge -it’s a slope.’ I reckoned my kit was going to fall apart by the end of June, especially the aircraft carriers because we had none to replace them. We had replacements for most things, such as frigates and destroyers, but we were short of Sea Wolf systems and Sea Harriers; our force for long-range air defence was a very limited asset as well. For various reasons we couldn’t have a landing force in before about mid-May and we had to be finished by 1 July, so there could only be a six-week period for the land battle. It was quite a close thing, as it turned out, because, of course, we finished in mid-June. Fortunately, Sea Harriers were quite plentiful because we didn’t lose them, which was a relief, and the carriers continued satisfactorily, with Hermes running for over three months and Invincible for more than four. But the destroyers and frigates were really falling apart by the end, because they were workhorses. On the last night, 13/14 June, I agreed to give General Moore four ships for Naval gunfire support for the land forces, and unfortunately, because of damage and wear and tear, I think only one ship managed to turn up. Air defence systems were also badly affected by weather and action damage: on 14 June only about one-eighth of the systems were available to us. If the opposition had found us then, we’d have been in a very poor way. I would say there was one really low moment in the campaign. This was 25 May, which is the big Argentinian naval day; their aircraft carrier is even named after it. I wrote in my diary , ‘They will probably do some thing today .’ Then, later in the day, I wrote, ‘Well, they don’t seem to have done much, maybe we’ll get away with it.’ That was my mistake. Within the hour they got the Coventry, and shortly afterwards the Atlantic Conveyor.

As for the Belgrano, enough has been said on that subject to satisfy any one, I’d have thought, but personally I have always been of the same view as the Argentine Admiral Lombardo, who effectively called it the fortunes of war and no more or less than he would have done in the same circumstances.

The finest example of straight calm in the face of extreme anxiety that I can recall was shown by Bill Canning, the Captain of the Broadsword, at the time of the sinking of the Coventry. He was on one of the high-frequency radios telling me about the situation as the attack occurred. I was about ten miles away listening to what was effectively a running commentary. He was telling me what he was doing and suddenly said, ‘I’m going to stop for a moment -something’s happened.’ There was a twenty-five-second pause and then he came back and continued describing what was going on, in exactly the same voice. During that break two bombs had passed straight through the stern of his ship. Remarkable cool- he just carried on in the same calm voice, even when he was picking up survivors from the Coventry, which was hit seconds later by the next wave of aircraft.
Another facet of character occurs to me. I don’t much like talking about the campaign, and perhaps I should have known better than to ask one of my COs, long after the war was all over, what was the single, most important lesson he had learnt down there. I immediately added, ‘No, don’t answer that.’ But he said, ‘No, I will. I learnt to cry.’ A fantastic thing for a young commander to say to his Admiral; an honest man, a very courageous thing to say. I think a lot of people did learn to cry -it’s a very important thing to learn.

I took a particular interest in the SAS raid on Pebble Island since I always felt it was one of my operations. It went very well despite some major difficulties and was completed in a very short time. One of the features was that it was highly rehearsed, very professionally prepared, in five days flat. It’s most unusual to go into an unreconnoitred area, working against air craft not seen before on the ground and destroy eleven in the middle of the night in a gale. It was a great success story -the biggest single disaster for the Argentinian air force. Later I flew out to Pebble Island in a Sea King and the memory of it is still very clear. Green fields similar to the north-west of Scotland, lovely cold, bracing wind, islanders -tough people- and there in the middle of this peaceful scene those eleven aircraft, looking almost undamaged until you got close. The bombs the SAS used had blown their centres out, absolutely wrecking them as far as flying was concerned but leaving the rest of the aircraft largely intact. They created, especially the Pucarcis which looked like praying mantises, a surreal and uncomfortable image. Everything was fresh and clean apart from this dirty, shattered machinery -quite symbolic.

The day after the surrender I landed on board Fearless on the way to meet General Moore at Port Stanley. General Menendez was on board and I was asked whether I would like to meet him. I decided I didn’t wish to. I could easily have become extremely angry; the temptation was to say, ‘What a bloody waste of time and valuable lives and limbs! Why couldn’t you have bloody well given in on 3 April?’

In Port Stanley General Moore suggested we went down to the airstrip to have a look at all the prisoners. The General and I, his Colonel, his Chief of Staff and a young subaltern armed to the teeth all packed into a car and we drove right onto the airstrip. It was the first time I had seen the Argentinians at close quarters, which was ironic, and it was a nervous moment; 5,000 men were there and we had only one properly armed bloke. I found myself a bit reluctant to unlock the car door but the General leaped out and off we went for a walk down the runway. He was quite right, they were docile, and I’m glad now he made me face up to my front-line responsibilities.
Up until March 1982 I never dreamed we’d go to war with Argentina. The whole emphasis of the armed forces is to be so patently good enough that it is not worth the candle for the opposition to take action against you. That’s the thesis, the underlying precept of our lives. It’s part of the deterrent posture that you have to maintain to show a potential opposition that you are competent and resolute. The concept of deterrence is important, and in the history of that funny little war we did in fact fail it. We withdrew HMS Endurance and it was read by the Argentinians as the final pull-out. They thought, ‘There are only forty-odd Marines left, and as long as we don’t kill them, the job will be done.’ You can’t entirely blame the Argentinians for not being deterred, but at the time we could not find it in our hearts to believe that the removal of the Endurance would tip the balance. But that’s the danger with deterrence-you don’t know when the balance is being tipped until it’s too damned late.

Since this was originally written for a different and more general purpose, the Type 22 frigates did not get much of a mention: to have done more would have been unfair to the many other contributors. However, my appreciation and understanding of the fairly ghastly time the 22s had is best demonstrated by the fact that I did commission a special painting by a well-known war artist [David Cobb] to record their long-standing and nerve-wracking task as ‘Goalkeepers’ for the two aircraft carriers. This was brought home to me most graphically one day in thick fog when I had gone to the forward end of the ski-jump to get a closer look at the fluffy white seabirds milling about around the bow that had been giving us problems with aircraft taking off. I looked over the bow to see the fresh white and pale green wash of what must have been the resident ‘Goalkeeper’ just passing under our stem. We had seen nothing of her at all in visibility of less than 50 yards and up till that moment, I had taken their task of remaining within 500 yards of us pretty much for granted. I never did so again and that lasting impression remains with me today. Like so many of the tasks for everyone at that time, high risk – low thanks. But thanks, nevertheless.
Sandy Woodward.