Lawrence Freedman - The Official History of the Falklands Campaign

Lawrence Freedman

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign.

Abingdon and New York: Routledge, Whitehall Histories: Government Official History Series, 2005,

2 vols, pp. xviii + 253, xxxi + 849. ISBN (set) 0-415-36431-0.


To Sir Lawrence Freedman, official history is neither definitive nor propagandist, but  a scholarly account based on the ‘quite marvellous’ experience of access to government documents: he generously thanks his researcher, Christopher Baxter, for simplifying his task. Where there is no documentation, he offers only tentative opinion. Thus he has ‘found no references’ to the use of nuclear weapons (II, 58). Since the Treasury was excluded from running the war, he accepts that it was paid for out of a mysterious ‘contingency fund’, which presumably re-filled by magic each night. Nobody, he insists, has attempted to influence him, and it is his own firm (and welcome) judgement that it is ‘simply not true’ that the Belgrano was sunk to destroy a negotiated peace. (II, 736).

            The two volumes are of unequal length, the second giving four times as much coverage to 1982 as the first allocates to the preceding two centuries.  Freedman’s cogent survey of the sovereignty issue perhaps conveys more uncertainty than the British position warrants: by 1982 there was title based on 149 years of occupation. The Falklands (‘like Dartmoor on a bad day’) hardly invited settlement. In 1771, London and Madrid agreed a compromise similar to the formula-fudging attempted 211 years later by those whom Freedman calls ‘do-gooders’: each tacitly recognised the claims of the other while denying their validity. The British soon withdrew their settlement but not their claim. Spanish governors remained until Madrid’s authority crumbled in 1806. By 1811, the Falklands were uninhabited. When Argentina declared its independence, barely half a million settlers struggled to control a million square miles. Perforce, the new republic ignored the desolate archipelago 300 miles from its coast. In 1829 an entrepreneur secured appointment as Argentina’s governor. A British diplomat protested and an American warship evicted him. In 1833, the Union Jack was raised once again.        

Argentines were hardly obsessed with the issue: they even offered to trade their claim against a defaulted loan, and did not serious press it until 1884. Still later, Buenos Aires suddenly noticed that it owned Britain’s sub-Antarctic islands: South Georgia was claimed in 1948. More often, there was practical acceptance of the status quo established when Spain finally recognised Argentine independence, with no mention of the Falklands, in a rapprochement brokered by Britain in 1859. From 1972, a subsidiary of the Argentine air force ran a service to Stanley: Imperial Airways did not fly into Jersey after 1940.

            Holland does not covet Belgium; Mexicans accept the loss of Texas. Why are Argentines unable to move on? Three elements in their experience are central to understanding this dispute. First, in 1980 the country accounted for 0.5 percent of global population, but Buenos Aires was the world’s fourth largest city: when politicians could not deliver bread, they provided circuses. Secondly, the country’s military culture is absurdly disproportionate to its defence needs. A legacy of the nineteenth century, when Argentines fought each other and exterminated their aboriginal population, the military intervened in politics for self-preservation. Together, demagogues and generals fostered the politics of imagined enemies and dramatic gesture. A third element was the recent immigrant background of the population: Argentines yearned to be respected as a European nation, even a world power. Perversely, the Falklands dispute was a by-product of unrequited Anglophilia.

            How, then, could Britain respond? To dismiss the ‘Malvinas’ claim as preposterous would be similarly to damn Argentina for its obsession. Hence Britain had to negotiate, and negotiation meant concession. With India and Africa gone, why hold on? The problem was the opposition of the Islanders, and their lobby in London. Everyone now agrees that British governments should never have conceded the Falklanders an effective veto. If their voice was to be heard, Islanders deserved at least an informed idea of their own vulnerability. Late in the day, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) began to talk of ‘education’ and sometimes of ‘making their flesh creep’ (I, 135) with predictions of Argentine nastiness should they refuse to co-operate. The strategy was internally flawed.

            Freedman does not say much about the Falklands population. He reports 1813 of them in 1980, but not how many were locally born. In passing we learn of expert opinion that the community (if that is the right word for such a troubled group) could not be sustained below 1500, and that many believed it to be heading that way fast. Nor do we learn much about the Falklands Islands Company (FIC) which owned much of the land. The FIC, it seems, made money for its shareholders and the UK Treasury, but was under-performing even in relation to the limited economic potential of the Islands. Twice in the 1970s it changed hands. Could there have been a unilateral British package, permitting Argentine investment in the FIC, a transition period on sovereignty, and resettlement grants for those Falklanders who wanted to leave? There are worse fates than state-sponsored emigration to New Zealand (‘euthanasia by generous compensation’, Sir Rex Hunt called it). Surely it was better to test Islanders’ resolve with British money than with British blood. But it did not happen. Transnational investment was not the fashion in the 1970s, and the British economy could hardly afford hand-outs. Far from Whitehall pressuring the FIC, the company was a force behind the Falklands lobby. Instead, the FCO dreamed of ‘lease-back’, Argentine ownership with British tenancy, a curious example of the policy-making process stuck in a cul-de-sac. Decolonisation offered an elegant way of abdicating burdens. Lease-back would invert this, combining unwelcome responsibility with uncertain control. Argentina would eventually allege some violation of the lease and evict the administration in circumstances just as humiliating as 1982 but without possibility of redress. For Argentina was now ruled by a Junta: inflation was hitting the sky, and dissidents were falling from aeroplanes. ‘It would be a sorry business to give over British subjects of UK origin to the whims and changes of a South American dictatorship,’ wrote one minister (I, 104). As Freedman writes, ‘if there was no Argentine will to compromise what was the point of encouraging the islanders to embrace a specific proposal?’ (I, 123).

            Without endorsing Callaghan’s view that it was a ‘whitewash’, Freedman dismisses the Franks Report verdict that nobody could have foreseen the invasion of 2 April 1982. True, the Junta only took the key decision the previous day, but warships and troops do not appear from nowhere. Thatcher’s defence cuts had sent the wrong message, while the approach of the 150th anniversary of British occupation made a crisis likely. Freedman criticises Britain’s response to the escapade of the Argentine scrap-metal dealers. ‘First steps in the South Georgia crisis were taken without thinking through what the second and third steps might be.’ (I, 224)  Whitehall assumed the Junta would behave like a law-abiding democracy: they were ‘much too intelligent to do anything so silly,’ reported the Buenos Aires embassy (I, 167). Equally, the Junta assumed that Thatcher would respond like a rational dictator, and accept defeat over islands she did not want. So, after a brief skirmish, the world saw pictures of British marines lying face-down in surrender. However much Thatcher distinguished herself as a war leader, she remains the prime minister who lost the Falklands.

            At this point, enter Sir Henry Leach ─ literally, bursting past a Westminster policeman join a crisis meeting of pole-axed ministers. With wartime service in the South Atlantic, the First Sea Lord declared that a Task Force could be sent, adding that it should be sent. It was, Freedman concludes, ‘a critical point in the whole Falklands story’ (I, 210). Thatcher could look parliament in the face; Britain could look the world in the eye. Everything flowed from that single decision. ‘At each stage of the campaign, going back was politically unthinkable, staying still logistically impractical, so the only option was to move on to the next stage, without any firm plan for the stage after that.’ (II, 445). The Task Force could not toss about in southern winter storms, so the troops had to land. The landing had to be on East Falkland, as far as possible from mainland airbases and the Stanley garrison. This meant a northerly sweep into Falkland Sound, which pointed to the sheltered beaches of San Carlos. Happily, British deception and Argentine immobility ensured that the landings were unopposed but, once ashore, British forces were virtually programmed to seize the Goose Green isthmus ─ and so on.

            Battle narratives are notoriously muddled. Freedman’s robust style ensures that the fog of war does not vanish deeper into the fog of analysis. Volume Two is divided into sections that separate the military and the diplomatic, and the author is deft in his handling of the bulk of material.  In a touch of genius, he captures the atmosphere of uncertainty by citing a horoscope sent, unasked, to Thatcher (who corrected the grammar). The Americans wrongly believed thought Britain’s cabinet was divided, Freedman dryly explains, thanks to Thatcher’s ‘normal forms of discourse’ with colleagues. Washington was split, equally dreading the Soviets in Buenos Aires and Michael Foot in Downing Street.  Kirkpatrick at the UN was blatantly pro-Argentine, Haig and the State Department wobbled but, thankfully, Caspar Weinberger at the Pentagon was solidly pro-British. Argentine decision-making remained mysterious. ‘It is not clear who is in charge here’, Haig reported from Buenos Aires. (II, 165). The bellicose Navy quickly retreated inshore, leaving the unprepared Air Force to launch ‘near Kamikaze’ raids.

            Like Waterloo, the Falklands campaign was a close-run thing. The precipitate despatch of the Task Force, the biggest long-distance operation since the Berlin airlift, meant that much equipment was incorrectly loaded, and had to be ‘cross-decked’ at sea. The loss of Atlantic Conveyor reduced helicopter reserves to a bare minimum. At the moment of victory, some British units were almost out of ammunition. Command structures were not always clear: at Fitzroy, there were five separate decision centres, stretching over seven thousand miles back to Fleet headquarters at Northwood. Communications, especially with submarines, were patchy ─ one excuse for tight control over the media ─ although one restive field commander thought them ‘too bloody good’ (II, 729). Intelligence was mixed, and Freedman discounts reports that the British used American satellite surveillance. It was good fortune that one officer collected information on the Argentine air force as a hobby, and that another had lived in Costa Rica and spoke Spanish. A psychological profile of the Argentine commander was based on the wrong General Menendez. The Task Force depth-charged whales and almost shot down a Brazilian airliner. Both sides fired on each their own troops and aircraft. Few British officers (and, presumably, hardly any Argentines) had battle experience. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Terence Lewin, who had served on both Malta and Russian convoys, bluntly warned that there was no point in having warships unless you were prepared to lose them. Combat proved a steep learning curve, as the disaster at Bluff Cove proved.

            Despite his disclaimers, Freedman cannot avoid the implication of praise and blame. It seems invidious to select, but undoubtedly Sir Anthony Parsons, Britain’s UN ambassador, did a superb job ─ at one point playing for time by reprinting of resolution to include the term ‘Malvinas’. Freedman’s consistently unemotional tone effectively underlines the heroism of British troops. He regrets the most celebrated act of sacrifice, by Colonel ‘H’ Jones, although he acknowledges that combat troops are led from the front. Freedman twice cites doubts about the suitability for command of a named senior officer who gallantly led his men to Stanley. In the gung-ho moment of victory, this officer offered ‘to take out Guatemala on our way home and so solve the Belize problem’ (II, 656) but he is also the source of a sombre tribute to Argentine bravery. If the doubts were overcome, should they have been mentioned? Or is it implied that a nettle remained ungrasped? Either way, the allusions seem invidious.

            British official histories now form part of the Whitehall History Project, published by Routledge. Unfortunately, the presentation here does not do justice to Freedman’s magisterial analysis. There are no photographs. The maps are uneven: some lack a scale, and several places mentioned in the text are omitted. A detailed map of East Falkland would have been useful. There is no mention of editorial support in Freedman’s punctilious acknowledgements. The text is hardly littered with errors, but there is a steady stream of infelicities in punctuation that editing should have eliminated: a senior scholar tackling so vast a project is entitled to such support. Freedman’s style is robust rather than elegant. Argentina can be both ‘they’ and ‘it’, the FCO and BBC ‘was’ and ‘were’, while soldiers are ‘who’ but prisoners are ‘which’. Thus: ‘the Navy was keener to keep Endurance running than they let on, and were preparing to argue [etc].’ Of the ship itself: ‘It carried two Whirlwind helicopters … but only had two 20mm guns of her own.’ (I, 61) Freedman also uses informal language, including ‘up the ante’, ‘blowing’ (for failure), ‘another go’ (for renewed attack), ‘leery’, ‘horrendous’. Nobody wants ponderous officialese, and some terms, such as ‘naval show’, convey the immediacy of service jargon, but more dignified terminology would have been preferable, especially as relatives of the dead are likely to read the book. Editing should have eliminated such glitches as ‘Public Records Office’ (I, 16), ‘Mr Neil Kinnock MP’ (II, 700) and ‘Privy Counsel’ (II, 716). William Whitelaw is inadvertently knighted (twice), while Vivian Fuchs undergoes gender realignment.

            The Falklands have moved on. Investment projects ruled impossible before 1982 because of Argentine hostility became necessary afterwards for just that reason. But Buenos Aires remains stuck in what Falklanders term ‘auto-brainwashing’. In 2004, Argentina’s sovereign dignity expressed itself in blocking a Falklands team from playing cricket in Chile. Even under democracy, the ‘Malvinas’ fixation symbolises a country incapable of purging its self-destructive political culture. Over 300 British personnel and three Islanders were killed in the campaign: they are listed by name. Other lives were scarred. Freedman’s text stands as a monument to the precarious snatching of military triumph from the tragedy of an unnecessary war. Sadly, Whitehall History has fallen short of producing the monument that the conflict deserves.

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