The Falklands War in Perspective: 25 Years On

Centre for First World War Studies

Saturday 23rd June saw another day school at the Centre for First World War Studies, University of Birmingham. The theme for this year’s school centred on the Falklands War in respect of that conflicts 25th anniversary, which was commemorated this year. Being the first day school I have attended I was pleasantly surprised with a good turn out at the event even though Dr John Bourne, the Centre’s director, did note it was not as high as usual and that this was probably because the content was not about the First World War though after listening to Dr Bob Bushaway’s lecture you could have been forgiven for thinking that you were but more on that later.

The event was opened by Dr Bourne explaining the reasons for the subject, quite self – explanatory given the anniversary, and his reasons for not giving a lecture. Traditionally the day schools are a Bourne – Bushaway event. I think Dr Bourne is giving his voice a rest after twenty years of public speaking. Throughout the day Dr Bourne did an excellent job of introducing each of the distinguished speakers. The speakers for the day were Dr Stephen Badsey, Dr Bob Bushaway, Air Commodore Peter Grey and Lieutenant General Sir Hew Pike, the latter two having served during the war.

The first lecture was given by Dr Stephen Badsey who gave the audience an overview of the political and strategic aspects of the war and some of the problems that the British faced in this sphere. The first point Dr Badsey made was that in the years since the war its definition has changed significantly. To contemporaries the war referred to as a crisis and in the intervening year it became known as a conflict but now we are quite safe in defining it as a war. This shows how opinions change over time. It makes one wonder what we shall call the current crisis in Iraq in twenty five years time. His next point linked to this was how the war was viewed at the time. It was at the time believed to be an aberration, something out the norm. It was not east – west and was conventional in nature. It was possible a colonial campaign, the Falklands being a British dependency, but was being fought against an invader. Now, as Dr Badsey noted, the war is seen as the first war of the coming cold war era. The lecture then covered some of the key political issue that affected the nature of the campaign and provided its context and conduct. Britain in the late 70’s and early 80’s was undoubtedly in a dire situation with unemployment running high and with the new Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher unable to deal with this issue. The war was also fought on the backdrop of Sir John Nott’s defence review held in 1981, which sought to re – align Britain’s priority towards NATO and the central front. For Britain’s armed forces this was to mean the eventual loss of an out of area and expeditionary capability and as noted by Dr Badsey if Argentina held waited just another year the situation could have been very different. We were then presented with the argentine situation and their actions leading up to the war. The situation then presented surrounding some of legal issues that caused problems for Britain’s prosecution of the war. Notable amongst these was the attempts by the UN to bring an end to the conflict. This provides an interesting context to the operations conducted by the military and the strains placed upon them. The audience was then presented with an interesting talk as to were research in the future should take historians as Dr Badsey asserted that despite the fact that the official records are still closed for a further five years there is probably not much more to add to the British account of the war. This, therefore, points the historian to argentine accounts of the war and exploring the role the certain countries played in the conflict most notable America, France and Chile. Chile was a country that continued to crop up throughout the day as answers were sought about there role in the war. It will probably be an answer that may never be found as the question of sources is most pressing. Chilean records are either closed or may not even exist considering that countries problems in the past twenty five year and British records may be placed under further restrictions and may well not come to light for many years to come. The final and one of the most interesting of the day was Dr Badsey’s opinion of the recently published Official History as written by Sir Lawrence Freedman. He noted that this was probably the last top down history that will be written. This implies that in the future any official histories that will be written may well be from the perspective of the soldiers and not from that of Whitehall and the Generals. This probably a reflection of where the study of military history is going at present and the impact and influence the media has had on our perception of war as presented via the various forms of mass media.

The day then moved on to look at the operational aspects of the campaign and to start with we were treated with a most unorthodox, and interesting analysis of the amphibious aspects of the war. This was presented by Dr Bob Bushaway and as mentioned earlier you could be forgiven for thinking that the lecture was about First World War amphibious operations as much of the lecture was dedicated to a discussion of the lesson learnt from the Gallipoli operation of 1915. As Dr Bushaway noted all British amphibious, and latterly combined, operations have been conducted under the spectre of the Gallipoli disaster. Dr Bushaway then argued, quite convincingly, that until the success of OVERLORD in 1944 British operations were designed to ensure that similar failure did not occur. Therefore, CORPORATE can be both seen as a British operations being conducted under the ghost of Gallipoli but analysis of its success is seen through the prism of Normandy. Also for Dr Bushaway CORPORATE is an expression of the British way of warfare and this is best represented in the next major theme of his discussion. This was an excellent overview of the importance of one of the seminal pieces military theory, Sir Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Corbett in his work argued that Britain, as the world’s pre – eminent maritime power had the ability to project power ashore using her navy and was then able to guarantee her sea lines of communications. It was, as noted by Dr Badsey, this ability that was to be lost to the Royal Navy in the wake of Nott’s defence review in 1981. Dr Bushaway’s lecture pushed this idea of the British way in war as the doctrine for amphibious operations and that it is this context that the effectiveness of Commodore Clapp’s task group should and must be analysed. Given all of the problems facing the amphibious task group Dr Bushaway concluded that the force performed beyond all expectation and maintained the great British tradition of well executed amphibious operations. That was the first half of the day. The second half will appear soon.

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