Si vis pacem, para bellum
Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De Re Militari, book 3‘What war?’
Anthony Williams, HM Ambassador to Argentina, 1.4.82 (allegedly)
There will be many books published and re-published to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of our victory in the Falklands. This is the one to start with.
Command of the Ice Patrol Ship must have been the most unusual Captain’s job in the Royal Navy. Besides a conventional naval presence - in an area where Defence Diplomacy presents unusual challenges, and relating to a continent where national jurisdiction is not well defined - there was support to be given to the British Antarctic Survey, the Scott Polar Institute, and other scientific bodies, and continuing hydrographic tasks for which the ship was additionally equipped. The 1980 HMS Endurance also carried an intelligence gathering suite in advance of anything in any other British warship, and its manning included fluent Spanish speakers. In 1980-2 there was also support needed for several BBC and other filming projects. There was a responsibility to the Governor of the Falkland Island Dependencies which included taking the Governor on an annual tour of his parish. The MoD, the Department of Education and Science, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office jostled for priority, and presumably back in Whitehall reams of paper poured forth contesting funding for what, although basically unarmed, was from 1975 to 1982 the only regular British warship presence in the entire southern hemisphere. Barker explains all this and, even without the war which comes upon him in the second half of the book, he provides an entertaining and comprehensive guide to this (to most of us) unfamiliar area.
Two things happened in 1979 which immediately collided - Barker got his fourth stripe, and the Conservatives inherited from Labour the usual Socialist near-bankruptcy. Nott was put in to slash defence spending and, based on his vast knowledge of Defence gained as a National Service infantry subaltern, immediately took an axe to the Navy. His victims were to include the assault ships, HMS Invincible, and HMS Endurance which Barker joined in May 1980, the ship having returned for her annual refit in Chatham. Barker and the apparently-doomed Endurance inherited that situation, exacerbated by lack of any sort of policy in Whitehall towards the Falklands except to find some sort of formula to give the islands away, supine acceptance of an Argentine naval base on British territory on South Thule, and governmental pusillanimity and procrastination in extenso. Barker puts all this together and demonstrates how appeasement and complacency left us drifting in to a desperately expensive war, which it is now clear we could easily have lost.
Barker’s guests on board were many and various - Governor and Mrs Hunt, David Attenborough, the distinguished naturalist Lord Buxton, and a Uruguayan naval officer came to stay. All manner of South American naval and service officers and ministers, British diplomats - of whom our man in Brazil comes out well, our man in BA (Williams) very much not so - came on board for the odd evening or were encountered ashore - from Lord Shackleton and his daughter who was the ship’s sponsor down to the KGB spook assigned to the Soviet Antarctic scientific party. Barker comes across as a very clubbable man, duke or dockyard matey all the same to him, and he amassed from his unique set of contacts and intelligence intercepts a vast store of information on the situation and the threat to the Falklands as a result, all of which was passed on to London, where it was sedulously ignored in both naval and governmental circles.
Barker is absolutely specific that he was told in January 1982 and again in February by Captain Russo of the Argentine navy that Argentina was planning to conquer the Falklands by force, although no date was given - the Junta had not then decided that point anyway. This key intelligence was duly ignored in London, indeed treated as merely Barker making waves for his ship. From March 20th exact information came in from the scientists on South Georgia about Argentine activity there including the raising of the Banda Blanco y Azul, an insult to British sovereignty also reported.
Barker’s efforts to explain the cheapness and utility of Endurance were much resented and were eventually countered by a letter from Margaret Thatcher to Lord Buxton pretending that the job could be done by the occasional frigate, a total falsehood cooked up by some landlubber staffie - no frigate could survive in the ice conditions in which Endurance could operate. The Endurance campaign gathered a momentum of its own quite independently of Barker, who, far away, was calumniated with all manner of lies cooked up by lesser men behind his back. The principal villains are named in the book; so also his supporters, most of whom - Brewer, Eberle, Outhwaite - were Gunnery officers because that is where the Navy used to keep its brains. One official calumniated at length is our Naval Attaché in BA, who escapes direct identification in the book but appears to have been Captain Julian Mitchell (CBE and beached 1986).
As to the War, the story of the invasion and recovery of South Georgia, where Endurance spent the entirety of the Falklands War, is told in full by the only person with a full grasp of what was going on. It is a tale of exceptional seamanship, navigation and leadership, particularly regarding Endurance’s initial clandestine withdrawal from the area in the face of utterly superior forces. Antrim’s captain was in charge of the recovery. Barker seems to have been unimpressed by him, something which may cast light on that gentleman’s treatment by Admiral Woodward. However the idea that Antrim was the wrong ship to send is somewhat negated by the usefulness of her Wessex and the fact that the operation was successful; some may think that Barker is being a bit petulant. The communications problems with Endurance’s Wasp helicopters, set out in Chris Parry’s book ‘Down South’, stem from their completely incompatible systems, but it is clear that their AS12 incursion did not add much to the attacks by Antrim’s Wessex and Brilliant’s Lynx. Nevertheless one cannot grudge Endurance’s Flight and its Commander their recognition as it is clear that throughout the War the Wasps were operating far outside any sort of peacetime safety limits.
Endurance eventually became, effectively, South Georgia guardship until sent, belatedly, to recover South Thule to its British allegiance. Here Barker records the Royal Air Force’s refusal to send him a Nimrod to help because the War was over and it was the weekend. ‘Beyond Endurance’ is probably the only book which will ever tell these stories in reliable detail.
Barker was beached at the end of his Captain’s time in 1988, clearly punished not just for being right but for saying so, regardless of his war service. The kiss of death was his telling the truth in a television interview. Thus his ship was the first to return from the Falklands not to be met by his C-in-C and the Prime Minister, although I suspect the Endurance’s captain, officers and ship’s company took comfort from the thousands of ordinary citizens who turned out to cheer her home to Chatham. Barker was the only CO to be cut out of Mrs Thatcher’s Captains dinner party at no.10, and he is absent from Woodward’s list of captains that Woodward regrets did not make Flag. However he won the argument and the Ice Patrol Ship has been retained - we are now on our fourth; the message got through, but at the expense of the messenger, for it can never be admitted that the junior party to an argument was actually right.
The story could well have been told earlier although it is as well Barker waited until after the Franks Inquiry was over, as he was then able to relate how one of its members told him that its object was to clear the Government, including Our Man in BA and the head of the FCO who both went on to knighthoods and greater glory. It is absolutely clear that the Franks Report was a meaningless whitewash, and that, Argentine ambitions apart, a catalyst for military adventure was the deliberate emasculation of the Royal Navy as above, engineered by Nott who was unaccountably knighted for thus triggering the deaths of so many British servicemen. The only thing that saved us was the Argentines jumping the gun - two months later and we should have been unable to get them shifted, with disgrace and humiliation incalculable. It is no thanks to Nott that that did not happen. I close this review to remark how justly Barker excoriates Nott in the book’s introduction, and later in detail.
This book continues to be a seminal review of how we sleepwalked into the Falklands War and how we only won it by a whisker - a damned close-run thing I think is the phrase.
There is an excellent selection of photographs and a good index.
‘Beyond Endurance’ by Captain Nick Barker (Pen & Sword 1997, ppbk 2002 £12.95)