Myths & mistakes of the Falklands War: We ask Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward


Commander Nigel David ‘Sharkey’ Ward, DSC, AFC  is a retired British Royal Navy officer who commanded 801 Naval Air Squadron during the Falklands War. We asked him his view on British air operations during the 1982 war in which he fought. 


If you could have changed one thing about British air operations in the Falklands what would it have been?

“There are two subjects that continue to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

One is the completely disingenuous propaganda campaign conducted by the Royal Air Force immediately after the war which sadly persuaded the gullible British public that they, the RAF alone, had won the air war over the Falklands. The full story of this deception and attempt to rewrite history is told in detail in my new book, soon to be published.

Suffice it to say here that the Sea Harriers of the Fleet Air Arm conducted 1,500 war missions over the Islands. The small detachment of RAF ground attack Harriers in HMS Hermes flew about 150 sorties of which less than half were combat oriented. All the air to air combat kills were achieved by naval aircraft (indeed, it is worthy of note that all air to air kills by British forces since 1948 have been achieved by naval aircraft – not one by RAF aircraft – and yet they claim they won the air war in Operation Corporate, the Falklands war).

Adding insult to injury, the propaganda campaign glorified the small but extremely expensive part that RAF Vulcan bombers played in the conflict. The real facts are that of the 63 bombs dropped by the Vulcan in three missions against Port Stanley runway, only one bomb was on target and that only damaged the side of the runway which was repaired on the same day. The four other Vulcan missions delivering anti-radar missiles only managed to hit one small radar emitter, that of a radar-controlled anti-aircraft gun on the outskirts of Port Stanley. These seven missions had no material effect whatsoever on the course of the Falklands conflict. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking.

The suggestion that the Nimrod aircraft played any effective part at all in or near the combat zone is also facetious propaganda.

The second ‘bad taste’ is an in-house naval affair.

HMS invincible had been formally given the responsibility of Anti-Air Warfare Control (AAWC) ship which principally meant having full and direct control over all Sea Harrier assets, including those in HMS Hermes, for Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties on the outer ring of Task Force air defence. The AAWC established three permanent CAP Stations to the South-West, the West and the North-West of the San Carlos beachhead. Invincible’s instructions to the Sea Harrier air groups onboard each carrier were very clear. Each station had to be manned by a pair of Sea Harriers who would have to conduct their patrol at low level, thereby providing an up-threat barrier against incoming Argentine attack aircraft. HMS Hermes, the flagship, had 50% more Sea Harriers than Invincible and these were needed to ensure a complete and secure barrier against incoming threat aircraft.

What happened? Without informing Invincible, the Flagship ignored the AAWC and instructed their Sea Harrier CAP aircraft to station themselves directly above San Carlos Water at 20,000 feet.

This provided no deterrence at all to attacking aircraft. Low-level CAP Stations were left empty and through these empty stations came the enemy fighter bombers and delivered their attacks against beachhead units and forces. As a direct result, several warships were attacked and disabled or sunk: including HMS Ardent and HMS Coventry. After releasing their weapons and as they left the beachhead area, more than a few Argentine aircraft were destroyed by the overhead CAP aircraft – but it was “after the horse had bolted” and at the unnecessary cost of many brave lives and several ships. The loss of HMS Sheffield in the open ocean was also a direct result of the Flagship re-tasking CAP aircraft from the air defence barrier to search for surface contacts, again without any ‘by your leave’ to Invincible. An Étendard aircraft penetrated the empty CAP station and delivered its deadly Exocet attack.

Despite all this Flagship interference, 801 Squadron low-level CAP aircraft managed to turn away more than 450 Argentine attack missions. Without this success, the war could well have been lost.”
What was the biggest mistake of the Royal Navy?

“Bearing in mind that this round of Hush-Kit interviews relates to Operation Corporate and retaking the Falkland Islands, I find this question rather odd and misleading.

When Argentina invaded South Georgia and the Falklands, the firm response (to Maggie Thatcher in the hastily convened War Room) from the Chief of the Air Staff and the Chief of the General Staff was that the Air Force and the Army were powerless to intervene. The then Defence Secretary, John Nott, who was a rabid critic of maritime power (about which he knew nothing) immediately tried to prevent the Prime Minister from listening to the Chief of the Naval Staff and First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach. Nott was overruled and Sir Henry informed Mrs Thatcher, “Yes, Prime Minister. I can assemble a Task Force forthwith and retake the Falklands.” Delighted, she told Sir Henry to make it so.

That was how Operation Corporate was born.

Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief Fleet was appointed Task Force Commander and Royal Marine Major-General Jeremy Moore was appointed Land Forces Commander. He in turn appointed Brigadier-General Julian Thompson as Amphibious Brigade Commander. Sir John Fieldhouse appointed Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward, then Flag Officer Mediterranean, as Commander Carrier Battle Group and Commodore Mike Clapp as Commander Amphibious Group. The Naval Service therefore provided all the Commanders of the Task Force elements (the Royal Marines, of course, being part of that Naval Service). By their own admission, the RAF could not provide any combat aircraft in support of the Task Force.

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In four short days, the Naval Task Force was gathered, provisioned, armed and the Carrier Battle Group with 20 Sea Harriers embarked in HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible set sail for the South Atlantic amidst huge patriotic fervour. Two days before sailing, Air Vice Marshal “Blue Rinse” Menaul appeared on public television and stated categorically that the Task Force would fail ‘because it had no fighter air defence capability’! How wrong he was!

In relation to the Falklands War, the Royal Navy made no big mistake. They and the Amphibious Brigade land forces contrived and achieved a remarkable victory against all odds. The only major failure was that of the Royal Air Force who, despite their earlier outrageous claims to Ministers, were unable to provide the Task Force with any air defence or antisubmarine capability en route to the conflict or during combat operations. They have not yet been held accountable for this abysmal failure.

My new book attempts to rectify this.”

What is the greatest myth about air combat in the Falklands?

“Without banging the drum too much, the greatest myth about air combat in the Falklands is that generated by the RAF propaganda campaign post the conflict. They proclaimed loudly and strongly to the British public that the Royal Air Force had won the air war over the Islands and, thanks to the extraordinary silence of the Naval Staff, they were allowed to get away with it.

They managed to convince the British public through disingenuous inference and innuendo that the fighter combat that took place over the Islands was at the hands of the RAF. The very existence of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and Carrier air power was neither mentioned nor alluded to. And yet, clearly, it was carrier-borne Sea Harrier fighter aircraft and Royal Navy surface warships which won the day.

This was a disgraceful attempt to rewrite history and, because it was believed by gullible ministers and civil servants, resulted in a severe and misguided decline in investment in true maritime/Fleet power that may well come to haunt us in the near future. China’s claims over the South China Sea, through which much of our trade passes, will soon reach critical mass. We and our allies need to be able to contain China’s territorial aggrandizement. If we do not wish to become embroiled in a fighting war, we and our allies need to be able to deter this emerging military giant.

Our other interviews with Sharkey Ward are here and here

Deterrence through visible strength is the key to maintaining an acceptable peace.

And so the media, the Secretary of State, the House of Commons Defence Committee and our politicians should now be asking the question:

‘Following the investment of hundreds of billions of pounds sterling in land-based combat aircraft and supporting units over the past four decades, what can the RAF do in the South China Sea to deter the power grab by China?’

One or two Typhoon fighters supported by a £1 billion Voyager tanker flying out of Singapore on short range missions cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered an effective 24/7 show of force. Only well-armed fleets at sea can deter or effectively counter this sinister Chinese initiative.”

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