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Combat Experience in the Falklands War

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 17 May 2012

Peter Johnston, Assistant Lecturer in History at the University of Kent, discusses the contrasting and complex combat experience of the British servicemen in the Falklands War (1982).


Peter Johnston:

In many ways the Falklands War was the first war of the modern age, using satellite surveillance, night observation and the very latest weaponry that military technology had to offer.

While in previous eras there was only one perception of combat experience, that of close-quarter fighting, technological advances throughout history, and the 20th century in particular, had greatly diversified combat experience. But many times, particularly in the land war, for all its technological sophistication, however, the fighting over the Falklands resembled that of the First World War, with heavily defended positions being fought over at close quarter.

How did this direct confrontation of the enemy, experienced almost exclusively by the ground forces, influence the mentalities of the men involved in the fighting? And how did these contrast with those of the men involved in the ferocious, highly technological war at sea and in the air? Through analysis of these contrasts, this lecture will demonstrate the different and complex combat experience of the British servicemen in the Falklands War.

The first area I’d like to explore is the different reasons for joining the Armed Forces in the '60s, '70s and early '80s and the expectation of what service entailed, as these had a direct influence on the cultures of the branches of the Armed Forces, which would in turn later shape how combat was perceived.

Unlike the First and Second World Wars, the Falklands War was not marked by a rush to colours by idealistic youths and volunteers, nor was there any conscription. The men who fought in the South Atlantic were paid and highly trained professionals; indeed they were already members of the Armed Forces when the crisis began. These men had not joined up under the pretence of ideology or a particularly strong desire to defend 'Queen and Country'. The vast majority of soldiers serving in the British Army had joined during a time of peace and, as [Hugh] McManners has written, ‘Joining the Armed Forces in peacetime, with no immediate prospect of having to go to war, was presented by recruiters as a career like any other.’

Men joined the different branches of the British Armed Forces for a variety of reasons. For some, particularly those in the Royal Navy, it was the non-warlike opportunities offered by the service, including foreign travel, trade apprenticeships or family connections that enticed them to join. For others, it was the sporting opportunities that the services provided.

Sport was used by the Ministry of Defence as a major incentive in their recruitment drives and it featured heavily and consistently in recruitment pamphlets distributed by both the various regiments of the Army and the Royal Marines in the 1960s and 1970s, with specific sections detailing the importance of competitive sport. Indeed, in a 1972 recruitment pamphlet produced for the Army, it stated that, ‘You would have to be a very rich civilian indeed to take part in all the sports available to the average infantry man.’

Now, moving on to the concept of prior service before the Falklands (because these also had a significant impact on what was expected) the likelihood of military service and the operations with which the individual armed forces were engaged in, had a direct impact upon their institutional culture and thus shaped outlooks and opinions for those who joined them. Except for a 12-month period between 1967 and 1968, British soldiers have been killed on operations every year since the end of the Second World War. Thus, British servicemen have always had the thought and likelihood of combat in the forefront of their minds and the vast majority of such operations were carried out by the Army.

The British Army’s longstanding operation in Northern Ireland, whereby all units, bar the Ghurkhas, did rotational tours of the province, meant that the men had some inkling of life on active service. In the infantry, without a conventional war, service in Northern Ireland was seen as the proving ground, if not the culmination of military training.

One Royal Marine has recalled that during his training Northern Ireland became increasingly important and that a new recruit could have no doubts he would serve there: ‘When they put you through training, you obviously learn lots, so if you didn't know it before you go in, you’re going to know it when you’ve finished training. And this is what we expected to do, because it’s part of the job.’

Indeed, in 1975 the Ministry of Information even produced a pamphlet for the Ministry of Defence entitled, ‘Northern Ireland: What’s it like for Soldiers?’ This pamphlet aimed to explain how and why the soldiers would operate in Northern Ireland. While not every recruit would have seen such a pamphlet, that the Ministry of Defence was producing them demonstrates they were trying to educate the recruits as to the likelihood of active service. Those that did see it could have no doubt that they would be expected to serve in the province. One personal question regarding soldiers in Northern Ireland covered in it is, ‘Are they allowed to refuse to serve there?’ to which the answer is, ‘No, soldiers know they have to go where they are needed.’

There is, therefore, an expectation of active service; military service is expected, indeed it is a desirable aspect of serving in the Army, it is part of the job. Such attitudes had a marked effect on combat experience, as shall be discussed later. However, while it provided similar stresses to combat, the fact remained that Northern Ireland was a counter-insurgency policing operation, not a conventional war. Anti-terrorist activities may provide good training but the risks are not the same. Exposure to enemy fire was not as prolonged, nor was the intensity of violence as high. In war there is no respite from the work, the danger and the psychological tension that goes with them.

The soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland were very aware of this despite all its manifest dangers and that it was not the same as a conventional war. As one Royal Marine said, ‘Having been a soldier in Northern Ireland is a different role, a different job, it’s a different type of war.’

George Brown, who served in 3 Para during the Falklands War, but had also served in Suez, Aden and Northern Ireland, referred to the idea of ‘the unseen enemy’ in the province, where there were ‘people talking to you, smiling at you, who hate your guts and who would then retreat around a corner and try and kill you!’

Christopher Brown had served in South Armagh, ‘But I’d never seen a general war. As you’ll appreciate, Northern Ireland, even in South Armagh, is very, very different from the general war situation in which we later found ourselves in the Falklands. It’s a feature of Northern Ireland that one very seldom comes face-to-face with a terrorist, it’s far more likely to be the victim of an explosion or a rocket attack, where one doesn’t actually see the man that’s pushing the button.’

However, while Northern Ireland was very different from the conventional war in which the British had been engaged in the Falklands, such experience did in fact create a desire for such a conflict. This can be seen in the enthusiastic welcome for which the news of the South Atlantic crisis was greeted and there was a real rush to ensure that men took part and were not left behind.

The desire amongst the Army and Royal Marines to participate in the largest military action Britain had conducted since Korea far outweighed the confusion over where this action would take place. I’m sure you know this or have read it somewhere but a great number of British servicemen could not quite fathom neither why nor how Argentina might invade islands off the coast of Scotland without them realising first. [Laughter]

For many, the possibility represented by the Falklands represented a real purpose and meant that the years of training were suddenly going to be put into action. This was the product of the mental conformity that came from training and serving in these units and of buying into their institutional cultures.

John Geddes, of 2 Para, for example, nearly missed the embarkation because he was on leave and his words, and I quote, ‘If I had missed the boat trip to the Falklands, I know that I would have spent the rest of my days branded a coward who bottled out of the battle. The men I admired most, my mates, would have shunned me. I would have become a Parachute Regiment leper and as far as I’m concerned that would have been the worst disease on the planet.’ And he concludes, ‘In those days the regiment and your mates were everything.’

Desire to participate amongst the ordinary soldier was not for any lofty political or moral reason (although obviously there was this is the contemporary media). For one para, ‘The idea of going to the Falklands is not that we wanted to save one of our islands in the South Atlantic, it was just the business that some country was trying to knock Great Britain off the pile, so it was going down there to sort the Argentineans out, not so much to go and save the Falkland Islanders.’

Indeed, it was a desire to implement training and utilise the skills learnt, to test oneself in the ultimate environment, which inspired people to go. It’s important as well to know that this attitude was not just present amongst the more elite units of the British Armed Forces, the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines, who went south, but it was also prevalent in 5th Infantry Brigade.

Robert Lawrence, for example, who served with the Scots Guards, was concerned about the impending action only so much that he was worried that by the time he arrived south, the Royal Marines would already have won the war and he’d have nothing to do. For Lawrence, and I quote, ‘Our feelings on the journey down to the Falklands were mixed. We swung at times from being desperately scared of the realities of going to war, to being just as desperately worried that we’d get down there merely to be told we were just garrisoning the islands and that the Marines had more or less done all the work.’

Indeed, Lawrence was resentful of the coverage the Paras and Royal Marines received in comparison to the Guards, quoting, ‘I’m a trained killer, you know - every bit as good as these Marines and Paras. I’m sick to death of hearing about Marines and bloody Paras!’ [Laughter]

Similarly, the vast majority of fighter pilots were also desperate to take the opportunity to implement their training. As one put it, ‘For some, going to war was a shock, for others it was a dream come true. The latter was the case as far as I was concerned. Indeed, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to fight. Peacetime flying had been fun, more than that, it had been terrific but it wasn’t "the real McCoy" and only the real thing was going to show us if all our training and tactics were good enough.’

There was certainly a professional satisfaction to be gained from putting training to the test and this created a real dichotomy of personal feeling when contrasted with the personal fears that were inevitably present, especially as the British fighter pilots were outnumbered some nine to one.

In contrast, from my research it is clear that the prevalent attitude amongst those who joined the Navy service fleet in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s was one whereby the possibility of seeing action at all was seen as being extremely unlikely and remote. Kevin Smith, for example, said that, when considering whether to join the Navy, the idea to ever be involved in a war never crossed his mind, whereas he knew that if he joined the Army and the Marines then it would be a definite.

Such an attitude arose partly due to the political circumstances surrounding the Navy in the post-war period and Naval recruitment undoubtedly benefited from the extended period of peace that the Navy was involved in. Thus, the Navy was able to extol all the benefits of Armed Forces life without any of the negatives and in particular the incentive of foreign travel was a major draw.

This is from a 1973 calendar produced by the Navy in order to, as I said, entice recruits and, as you can see here, the vast majority of this is given over to really just extolling the wonderful places you can go. And in an age pre- sort of cheap air fare and cheap air travel, that’s quite a major incentive and certainly something that a lot of people were very receptive to. In the top-left up here you’ve got Venice, bottom-left-hand side there is in Singapore and on the right-hand side is this generally pleasant Mediterranean scene.

Alastair Finlan has argued that, ‘While servicemen have joined a profession in which the fundamental purpose is to apply violence (often lethal) to achieve political ends, they rarely practise the skills they have learnt,’ and this is particularly true of the Royal Navy in the period of 1960-82. While one sailor, John Wingate, believes that when he joined the Navy he had a strong sense of patriotism, he said, and I quote, ‘I had no sort of feelings when I was joining the Navy that it might be because I would have to go to war or get into any conflict, it didn't cross my mind.’

Thus when war became a distinct possibility, there was not the same widespread enthusiasm within the Royal Navy as in the Royal Marines, as combat was seen as something very alien to what it was perceived the Navy did. Therefore, men who did not consider war a possibility when they joined the Navy, suddenly found themselves thrust into it and this certainly affects their reactions to what they experienced.

Even the Submarine Service was forced to adapt, as they were tactically and culturally orientated against hunting out ballistic missile submarines of the Soviet Navy, in the North Atlantic and North Sea, and carried out intelligence gathering operations. Yet in the Falklands they’d be required to fulfil the role of their historical predecessors and target Argentine shipping.

Moving on then to the actual combat itself and, the first part, to knowing your enemy. Despite being tactically and strategically orientated to fight against two very different enemies to the Argentines, the land forces deployed by the British would be engaged in much the same sort of battles for which they had trained. Their training was directly applicable to the situation in hand and, even more significantly, it was far better than that which the opposing Argentine conscripts had received, meaning that they could approach the coming operation with the utmost confidence, if some trepidation.

In order to recapture the islands, the British would have to engage the Argentines and defeat them in combat. As McManners has written, ‘When all the theorising and jargon is removed, land combat, more than any form of warfare, is about killing other human beings.’ What then motivated the British in this and what factors shaped their combat experience?

The Roman historian Tacitus has written that, ‘It is human nature to hate the man you have hurt,’ and often, in books focusing on the role of combat experience and the nature of combat experience, there seems to be a real focus on the dehumanising of the enemy and the demonising of his systems, his personality, his nationality, in order to be able to commit acts of violence. However, I consider the absolute opposite to be true in regards to British soldiers in the Falklands: there’s simply no evidence to suggest that this is the case at all.

While the British Army and Marines of 1982 had many disparaging comments to say about their enemy, they didn't hate them. Indeed, it is the professionalism of the soldiers in the 1982 Armed Forces that prevented such hate, since to be effective combat soldiers fighting against a numerically superior enemy in pre-prepared defensive positions, they needed to retain a rational thought process, not give in to wild bloodlust.

Also, in many ways there was simply no time for such hate to be fostered. The escalation of hostilities occurred so rapidly, the enemy was so unexpected and the theatre of operations so surprising and before they were in a combat situation, no British soldier could have hated such an unforeseen enemy. Even though they didn't know where the Falklands were - and, I mean, that surely in itself would have prevented any longstanding, long-term and deep-seated emotions forming.

The vast majority of fighting in the Falklands took place at night. It was terrifying, close-quarter combat, where virtually all feelings were pushed aside and replaced by unconscious survival instincts of aggression. While the professionalism of the British soldiers certainly made them effective killing instruments, such work was not revelled in. The feelings of open hostility and aggression whilst carrying out such an attack were countered by the immediate remorse felt after the moment of killing which, to my mind, quite clearly demonstrates that any such emotions felt in the heat of combat were not deep-set.

In this, the British Armed Forces in 1982 are sort of historically parallel with their predecessors. If you look at the Second World War, for example, the British respected their enemy for their military effectiveness and capabilities and such respect ultimately prevents the fostering of hate. And on the front line, the British soldier readily identified with the man appointed the enemy.

Gerald Barnett, who served in Italy in 1943 observed that, ‘Because we’re all in the same boat, there was an instant strange friendship that happens between infantry soldiers, even on both sides.’ Another soldier, who served in North Africa, was adamant that he did not hate the Germans, that, ‘In the front line we do not hate those who we try to kill. A species of common humanity is developed between two opposing armies. After all, a dead German, a dead Italian and a dead Britisher are pitifully similar.’

For him, the spirit of hatred belongs at home with the civilians, almost exclusively created by an aggressively nationalistic and xenophobic media. And it’s fair to say that there are many strong parallels again between that and the Falklands War. One of the typical headlines being produced by ‘The Sun’ [shows image of ‘Stick It Up Your Junta’ headline]. Obviously there’s the far more famous ‘Gotcha’ one as well.

This lack of hate in the Second World War was often at odds with those experienced by senior commanders, whose responsibility was to foster aggressive tendencies in their men, in order to accomplish their missions. For example, on the eve of the invasion of Sicily, Montgomery addressed the 8th Army with the words, and I quote, ‘Someone said to me a few days ago that the Italians are really decent people and that if we treat them properly, they will come over to us. I disagree with him. Our job is to kill them, that is what you have to do. Once we have killed them, we can see if they’re good fellows or not, but they must be killed first.’

Indeed, the lack of hate in the Falklands can also be seen in how the British soldiers interacted with their Argentine enemy once the fighting was over. Any artificial construct of who the enemy were and what they were like melted as soon as the first social contact was made outside of direct engagement. This normally took the basic form of sharing cigarettes with the defeated and captured enemy, but also included medically treating wounded Argentine soldiers. As one para commented on his first sight of the enemy after the Battle of Longdon, ‘I looked at him with interest. He was my first sight of the enemy. He was like any of us, only his uniform was different.’

Furthermore, as the battles were fought so far from Britain, in isolation, there was a real sense among the British of a shared bond with the Argentines, who had similarly endured the campaign. This was particularly apparent for David Cooper, the padre of 2 Para, who said that, and I quote, ‘We all felt, in a curious way, closer to the Argentines who we’d been fighting, than we did to the people back here because they were the only ones who really knew what it was like.’ As McManners has written, ‘Close combat gives a human face to the enemy and makes men realise that he suffers too.’

Yet if such social identification was possible, why then did the British engage the Argentines so enthusiastically and so effectively? To my mind, the answer lies in their training. Central to the training that each man had endured, was that they were expected to be able to kill in order to achieve their objectives. When it came to fighting in the Falklands, therefore, the British soldiers and Marines required less mental pressure to take up arms and fight, as they already viewed it as their function and their role. In this way they were remarkably different from the civilian soldiers of the First and Second World Wars, who required a bit more mental conditioning to overcome these social taboos.

For example, when it came to small arms training, something all soldiers participated in regularly, a pamphlet produced and circulated by the Director of Army Training in 1973 stated that, ‘The title of this pamphlet, "Shoot to Kill", may seem somewhat dramatic but these three words sum up exactly the purpose of small arms training.’

Additionally, firing ranges had been adapted to include more realistic Figure 11 targets, that looked more like human beings and dropped away when hit. Throughout the training period, and I quote here, ‘The soldiers rehearse the processes so many times that when he does kill in combat he is able to at one level deny himself that he is actually killing another human being.’

Indeed the training was so effective that one veteran of the campaign recalls that when he got into combat in the Falklands and fired his weapon, it was just like shooting at Figure 11 targets on the range, with no greater emotional significance. Men took no pleasure in what they were doing, they were simply doing their jobs, fulfilling their vocations as soldiers. As one para commented, and I quote, ‘Some people make cars, we make war.’

Training had also encouraged the essential esprit de corps that marks the British Army out as being unique. The tribal nature of the British Army, where regimental pride is promoted above all else, means that men will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their colleagues, their friends and their regiment. Soldiers are motivated to acts of violence by - and this sounds rather strange - by acts of love; love for their comrades, not in so much a romantic form, but more fraternal bonds that develop between men in combat and men in training.

As Joanna Bourke has written, ‘It was precisely the individual’s ability to transcend hatred and to be transported by emotions of love and empathy, which facilitated extremes of violence.’ The desire to protect one’s comrades, as well as not risking social exclusion by appearing cowardly in their eyes, motivated many to participate in attacks on heavily defended positions and fight to capture them. Training had produced an expected pattern of behaviour and it would take a very brave man indeed to break out of such habits when they were required the most.

Moving on now, in contrast, to look at the experience of the Navy and the Air Force at war, which I’ve termed, ‘Fighting the Faceless’. There was another war in the Falklands and one that was still against the Argentines but, most significantly, it was against their mechanical extensions rather than people, in terms of ships and aircraft. Whereas on land man fought against man, at sea and in the air men fought against machine. Such a difference has an enormous effect on combat experience and motivation.

In contrast to the land war, the Royal Navy could not simply re-orientate itself against a new enemy and a new theatre, as their training and equipment actually hampered their ability to fight in the South Atlantic. Having been exclusively geared towards a high-tech deep-water war against the Soviet Union for so many years, the challenge presented by the Argentine air force, in places like San Carlos Water, represented a huge obstacle for the Navy to overcome.

The Argentines, opposite to the Soviets, were to adopt a low-tech war, a method of attack reminiscent of the air-to-sea battles that were taking place off Malta and Okinawa in the Second World War, with aircraft closing in and attacking ships at close quarters.

As you can see here, that’s an A4 just disappearing after its bombing run. And I hope you can see there, but pretty much level with the horizon, in the centre of the photo, is an A4 coming in low. And this shot is someone has sort of popped his head over the side to see what’s happening off the deck of [HMS] Coventry and captured this - it’s quite a remarkable photograph. But you can see there just how low he is and also imagine the speed at which he’s attacking.

Chris Howe was the electronic warfare director on board [HMS] Coventry, a Type 42 [destroyer], and summed up the problem that the British Navy was now facing. I quote, ‘Anti-ship missile defence is what I was trained to do against the Soviets. So whilst the procedures were sound, the weapons we now expected weren’t things we’d trained against. We were back against iron bombs, there’s no radar on those, so there’s no electronic warfare detection of those.’ Effectively, his role’s been completely neutered and he doesn’t have a function, yet he’s still in the war zone. It’s an interesting concept of challenging of identities.

Even though the Argentines were going low-tech, however, their weapons were still extremely effective. Here you can see [HMS] Coventry sinking on 25 May [1982].

The planned defensive capabilities of ships were designed to target high-level Russian bombers, not low-level fighters. Missile systems, like sea darts, simply didn't work. Furthermore, ships had been stripped of their close and defensive weapons and were now paying the price. Such a war was counter to the entire culture of the Royal Navy of the era. It was an unexpected enemy and an unexpected theatre, with unexpected weapons.

The war at sea in the Falklands was against men, but it was predominantly against their mechanical extensions, such as aircraft. It’s predominantly the aircraft, and also the more feared exocet missile, that occupied the majority of the Royal Navy in the Falklands War.

Kevin Smith, who I referred to earlier, manned a machine gun on [HMS] Argonaut, a Leander-class frigate, and said to all intents and purposes the enemy remains faceless to him. Smith never believed he was shooting at a person. Instead he was shooting at a machine, as this constituted the main threat. This distinction is very much the product of a specific nature of naval warfare, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the weapons of war which are employed in naval battle by both sides are technically more advanced than those employed in the war on land, as highlighted earlier. While historically naval warfare had involved closing with an enemy vessel and launching broadsides at close quarters, the advances in military technology have meant that ships no longer need to be within visual range to engage and destroy one another. Ships and aircraft could be located on radar and guided missiles despatched against them. The intrusion of technology, therefore, certainly distances the sailor from the act of violence he’s committing. As McManners believes, and I quote, ‘Modern technology makes even the direct engagement of the enemy, by the handful of weapons operators, a remote and disturbingly unreal business.’

Because of the technological intrusion, the weapons operators are not forced to confront the reality of what they’re doing in the same way as soldiers are on land. There’s a façade of distance they are able to maintain, both physical and psychological.

Dick Lane, an anti-air warfare officer on board HMS Coventry, believes that, and I quote, ‘You don’t think who is behind that blip on the radar screen is actually a person with a mother and a father and maybe a wife and children as well. You can’t think that way. It is someone who’s trying to kill you and you don’t want that to happen.’

As Bob Harms, an artillery liaison officer aboard [HMS] Ardent, believed, when it came to shooting down aircraft, it was ‘like an amusement arcade game; lining up the crosswires and shooting down the space invaders’. The technology dictates the sailor’s mentality and he is able to act without having to overcome the social taboo of killing that has previously and historically affected the infantryman. They say they can, in many ways, hide behind the technology and use it as a psychological shield. When combined with the speed at which threats materialised, which would be in the amount of seconds, this served to greatly depersonalise ship-to-air combat.

Secondly, when a ship is in action, the vast majority of the ship’s company are not actually involved in the fighting at all. Only a tiny minority are engaged in actually firing weapons. The vast majority of the ship’s company have other roles during the attack: below decks, maintaining electronic systems, maintaining the engines, maintaining the air conditioning and this sort of thing, or simply waiting in damage control teams for something to happen, for them to actually do something other than wait. And thus they are both physically and psychologically removed from the enemy. Only those sailors stationed on the bridge or upper decks can even see the threat; the other sailors are ensconced inside the ship.

For those responsible for controlling the missiles, their station was in the operations room, deep in the heart of the ship, dominated by computer terminals, such as this. The enemy are not even located by sight but by electronic means, again reducing the realism. This is particularly true for submariners; only a handful of people on board the [HMS] Conqueror even saw the [ARA General] Belgrano before she was sunk. Indeed, very few sailors in the taskforce as a whole even saw the Falkland Islands at all during Operation CORPORATE. It wasn’t until quite long after they even managed to see them.

Because they cannot see the enemy they destroy, the emotional impact of their actions is lessened. Even though sailors who were positioned on the upper decks, manning close-in weapons defences, such as Oerlikon and Bofors guns, never saw the enemy as a human being, as he was always wrapped up in technology. Even if human attributes and characteristics were applied to his aircraft - for example, the aircraft is being gendered as a ‘he’ - it’s the aircraft that moves, it’s not the pilot that moves the aircraft; the aircraft has human characteristics.

Additionally, however, sailors could not be entirely sure if their shots were the ones that even brought down such aircraft when possible. Returning to the example of Kevin Smith and his machine gun, he’s fairly certain that while he hit an attacking Argentine, due to the sheer weight of fire being supplied by the ships and the defensive screen, he is completely unsure whether it’s his bullets that struck the fatal blow.

Such questioning of ability provides a real moral shield by which to justify actions, which is quite significant in this form of combat as opposed to that on land. However, whereas not all soldiers fight in a land campaign, all sailors do because the ship itself is a weapons platform. Again, taking the example of the aircraft manifesting itself as a human, the fact is the ship does as well. So for all those inside it, even if they’re not directly involved in firing weapons, they are still the target, very much so, because it is the main target for the enemy. The enemy’s not concerned with killing individual sailors, he’s concerned with hitting ships and sinking ships.

While some sailors may believe that the incoming attacks are targeting them personally, it’s instead the ship that houses him that’s the target and this depersonalisation of naval combat is just impossible in the equivalent on land, where men move independently. The sailor, therefore, is inextricably linked to the fighting even if their roles are not particularly warlike and I can think of little better example of this than the Stewards Branch of the Royal Navy of this period, who are effectively butlers. They’re butlers and they’re waiters who served on the captain in the ward room and they have absolutely no desire to fight at all, yet here they are, trying to conduct what was an extremely civilised role in an extremely uncivilised environment. Relics of previous eras, they are certainly exposed to the full dangers and horrors of modern naval warfare.

As an additional contrast, because of the high-tech nature of naval warfare in the Falklands campaign, the naval combat experience was characterised as much by technical challenges as those of combat. Whereas those troops engaged in the land campaign were confined to defensive positions in between actions and advances for extended periods of time, on the vessels of the Royal Navy the sailors were continually engaged in maintenance work.

There were no periods of inactivity at all and the sailors worked on a system of defensive watches of four hours on duty, followed by four hours off. Vulnerable to interruption, the vast majority of sailors spent their free time catching up on sleep. Even if the ship or submarine was not engaged in action, it required extensive and prolonged maintenance just to keep it afloat.

The rough South Atlantic sea was also taking its toll on the ships of the taskforce and indeed the seas were so rough that Type 21 frigates, such as this one here, actually began to literally break apart, with cracks forming amidships on the upper deck. Again, coming back to what the ships are designed to do, they’re not designed to be in such open and rough seas, they’re designed to be in a far more sheltered environment of the North Sea. While the soldiers on land also had to battle with the unpredictable and abrasive South Atlantic weather, at sea the Royal Navy was more exposed and able to exert even less influence on their surroundings than those British servicemen dug in under primitive shelter on the islands themselves.

In brief regard to fighter pilots, they too were obviously bound up in technology and aviation, in all its forms, represents the zenith of military technology and thus technology dominates the airman’s experience of war like no other.

From the moment a mission begins to the moment it ends, airmen are dependent on mechanical and technological support to sustain them in an environment in which you could otherwise not survive. In the modern jet age of aviation, these changes are even more pronounced, with aircraft able to fly higher and faster and engage their enemies over greater distance, with weapons of increasing sophistication.

Such a dependence on technology can also involve its own hazards, as the factor for complications and difficulties is massively increased. As the aircraft become more technical, so they become more mentally demanding to keep airborne, let alone fight, requiring continuous concentration. Any loss in this concentration or misinterpretation of instruments can lead to disaster and, unfortunately for some fighter pilots in the Falklands, did.

Yet what is fascinating is that even though technology has transformed air combat from its origins in the earlier 20th century, the perceptions of air combat remain unchanged. Here are three comments on aerial combat from the Falklands as well as the First and Second World Wars and I’d be interested to know if you can identify which era they were from.

I hope that you can all see them but if you can’t, the top one reads, ‘At least the war seemed clean in the air, more chivalrous, more gentlemanly, and if death came it would be swift, not a scorching scream of tangled metal but an instant snuffing out of life, with hardly time to know what had happened; a far better end, a warrior’s end.’

And then the second one, ‘To be alone, to have your life in your hands, to use your own skill single-handed against the enemy, it was like the lists of the Middle Ages, the only sphere in modern warfare where a man saw his adversary and faced him in mortal combat, the only sphere where there was still chivalry and honour. You do not sit in a muddy trench while someone who with no personal enmity against you loosed off a gun five miles away and blew you to smithereens and did not know that he’d even done it. That was not fighting, it was murder, senseless, brutal, ignoble.

And the final one, ‘In a fighter plane I believe we have found a way to return to war as it ought to be, war which is individual combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed. It’s exciting, it’s individual and it’s disinterested. We’re back to war as it ought to be, back to the individual combat, to self reliance, total responsibility for one’s own fate. One either kills or is killed and it’s damned exciting!’

As I said, you can certainly all appreciate the direct similarities between the three and in fact it is the top quote that is from the Falklands, the second quote is from the First World War and the last is from a Spitfire pilot called Richard Hillary, who obviously served in the Second World War.

As you can see, therefore, that when it comes to aerial combat there is a clear continuity of experience historically, as well as expression between the two eras, despite the technological advances that separate them. And I think it is quite remarkable that nowhere more is history linked and bound up than it is in the perceptions of air combats experience.

Fighter pilots had the advantage of a more obvious and discernible target that is often lacking in ground combat and there was also solace in the fact that a pilot would know who killed him should he not succeed, rather than his death be a random event due to an anonymous bullet on the battlefield and many took great solace in that.

A further contrast with other forms of combat experience in the Falklands is that for fighter pilots killing was not so much an associated aspect of the combat, rather it was viewed as a goal of considerable importance. In this, the pilots of the RAF [Royal Air Force] in the Second World War had much in common with those in the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF in 1982. While those pilots who had served in the Second World War had joined with an expectation of fighting, for the 1982 descendents, lulled by many years of détente and peace time military life, combat was a great goal many feared they would never experience, hence the excitement about participating, as described earlier.

The shooting down of an enemy fighter is the goal of most fighter pilots, as it is the culmination of all their training, the practice they have dedicated their lives to and one the vast majority of pilots in his career had been denied. Instead, they had spent their careers engaged on exercises with Nato [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] nations or other friendly forces. It was a badge of honour to pursue and a proof of martial prowess.

Those pilots who achieved kills were lauded as heroes by their squadron mates and the carrier crews, while those who hadn’t became increasingly frustrated they’d not been able to do so. It was in many ways an extreme form of competition between comrades that motivated pilots to kill, rather than the infantry, where the protection of comrades had provided such motivation. Whereas killing in the infantry, in both conflicts, was seen as an unnecessary and unpleasant aspect of the job, in the air it was seen as virtually the opposite way.

The media was certainly involved in this and the glorification of killing, giving a glamorous appearance due to the context in which it took place - namely the clear, pure sky rather than a muddy battlefield. And such things manifested themselves in the way that fighter pilots’ wins and losses tended to be recorded as football scores and cricket scores in the media and also chalked up as such.

In both conflicts, the numbers of aircraft shot down, as I said, were recorded like cricket scores and it’s interesting that body counts have never been used by the British Army in such a way as proof of success. Even then, however, for the fighter pilots, the kill was a machine, not a man, and while many pilots in the Falklands were happy to shoot down Argentine aircraft, many were even happier to see the pilots eject to safety.

The final area I’d like to analyse briefly is that of commemoration. Combat lives long in the minds of those who experience it and justification and commemoration can play an important part in alleviating psychological stress.

The landscape of memory is also very different for the Royal Navy in comparison to the Army and Royal Marines. Whereas veterans of the land battles of Operation CORPORATE are able to visit the battlefields, retrace their footsteps and occasionally find traces and remains of positions they may have personally occupied, the Royal Navy are completely unable to do so. The sites of their actions are not walkable but rather either visible from an adjacent piece of land or mere co-ordinates on a map of the ocean, far from the Falkland Islands themselves.

We can see such a contrast in these two images. The first here is a picture of a sangar on Mount Longdon, which veterans and visitors alike can explore while on battlefield tours. Alternatively, this image here shows two memorials for ships. The one on the left commemorates those lost on HMS Coventry on the 25 May [1982] and is located on Pebble Island, although the ship sank several miles offshore. The one on the right commemorates HMS Sheffield, which was sunk much earlier in the war.

Ships that were sunk disappeared beneath the waves completely, lost to sight and, to all but their crews really, lost to mind. Even those that returned from the South Atlantic had their crews dispersed eventually and as the Navy’s policy of personnel rotation continued, the ships themselves were either scrapped or sold on to the navies of other nations as well. So there’s not even a tangible reminder of long lasting, particularly with military budget cuts.

There are also no graves to visit, no specific sites of remembrance. Those men who have served on land are able to visit large-scale cemeteries created by the Imperial War Graves Commission, smaller ones, such as the military cemetery at Aldershot, or even local parish graveyards, in order to visit their fallen comrades.

For the first time in 80 years, the British government gave the possibility for people to have the remains of their loved ones re-interred and brought back to Britain (repatriated back to Britain) and buried, either in the barracks or in their local parishes with their parents, which is something that the vast majority of people took up on. As naval casualties, however, are buried at sea, this deprives not only the families of a site of mourning but also the sailors’ former comrades, a site that could prove important in achieving closure on wartime experiences.

What is further interesting as well is that fighter pilots similarly suffer a similar difficulty, but many fighter pilots from the Falklands war have actually collected pieces of aircraft they shot down, from the wreckage of crash sites, such as this. They can simply go back and find their kill if they like and they’ve collected these, almost as if they’re hunting trophies. Some that I’ve spoken to have even mounted them on the walls. And, again, it’s fascinating to think that you’d never mount any human remains but you can quite willingly do it with technological ones. Again, this comes back to the fact they’re tangible proof of their martial prowess, which is the goal encouraged by their training and their operational culture.

Sailors, however, cannot take any mementoes of this at all, whereas even soldiers may be able to pick up the odd shell casing or something that means personally something to them.

So, in conclusion, I believe that the basic mentality of British servicemen transcends the branch of the service they were in. There is a predominantly uniform psychological approach to combat and the enemy. However, while this lecture’s been regrettably brief, I hope to have demonstrated that the different mediums of war encountered in the Falklands conflict certainly held influence over how those servicemen conducted themselves in combat and how they interpreted their experiences.

The dominance of technology in naval and aerial warfare, as opposed to the closer, more personal land combat, is a major facet in explaining these differences. Even if the human element remains central to warfare, regardless of how sophisticated technology becomes, the warrior’s interaction with this technology will dictate the way he perceives combat. This was certainly the case in the Falklands and its distinction has only become more entrenched in the following years.

Thank you.

1 comment

David Kenney
4 December 2012, 8.51pm

Sir: I think that you are

Sir: I think that you are badly wrong in much of what you say. For example: the technology and equipment used by both sides was old and had nothing to do with what we use now. The British AA defenses didnt work in many cases. The boots were awful. The landing craft were old. The fuel pumping was WW!. The men were superb.

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