Commander of the Royal Navy taskforce that retook the Falklands Islands after the Argentinian invasion in 1982
Admiral Sir John Woodward, known as “Sandy”, who has died aged 81, led the naval expeditionary force which, against all the military odds, recaptured the Falkland Islands from the Argentinian invaders in 1982.
Woodward, then a rear admiral, was in the right place – at sea in the north Atlantic exercising his First Flotilla of destroyers and frigates – at the right time, when the Royal Navy was hurriedly assembling a taskforce to sail for the south Atlantic. And although he candidly admitted in his memoirs that “no one would ever have heard of me but for the events of 1982”, he proved also to be the right man.
The Argentinian military junta invaded the Falklands on 2 April 1982. In London Margaret Thatcher’s government, caught unawares, wrung its collective hands. Even the defence secretary, John Nott, regarded the occupation as irreversible. Enter, in the most dramatic fashion, the first sea lord and chief of naval staff, Admiral Sir Henry Leach. He left a ceremony in Portsmouth and ordered a helicopter to fly him to London. On arrival he marched in full uniform into parliament and assured Thatcher and her officials that the navy could mobilise a suitable task force “by the weekend”. It was already Friday. The prime minister announced in an electrifying broadcast on Saturday 3 April that an amphibious operation would be mounted.
In overall command was Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, commander-in-chief of the fleet. Three nuclear-powered attack submarines under his direct control were secretly sent out at once. Woodward had tactical, frontline command of the taskforce, TF 317, at sea as it assembled and sailed southward via Ascension Island. His flagship was the old carrier HMS Hermes, supported by another carrier, Invincible (which were both up for sale at the time), destroyers and frigates – a total of 27 warships plus transports.
Once it was near the Falklands, the taskforce, TF 317, was divided into task groups (TG), including an amphibious group led by Commodore Mike Clapp, TG 317.0. The carriers and their escorts, TG 317.8, remained under Woodward’s direct, tactical command. His role now was to provide air, surface and anti-submarine support for the landing of a counter-invasion force of 6,000 soldiers and marines, under half the total of the occupation forces.
The exercise off Gibraltar that made him the nearest available admiral, and which he abandoned to head south, had involved simulating highly effective missile “attacks” on a US navy carrier group. Woodward was therefore particularly worried by Argentina’s formidable, French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles. The loss of even one of his two carriers would probably have meant defeat. Intelligence also reached him of three enemy task groups at sea: a carrier with escorts to the north, a group of frigates in the centre and the 1930s former US cruiser General Belgrano with two modern (British-built) destroyers to the south of the exclusion zone around the Falklands, declared by the British as …read more