Of the many books written about the Falklands war, Admiral Woodward's is surely one of the best. His account is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is the way he is able to convey the big picture of the campaign and yet at the same time bring us his own very personal viewpoint, written in a gripping and thoroughly involving manner.
There's a disarming frankness about much of his account, contrasting with some of the other written accounts by servicemen which, while excellent in many respects, can have a certain air of self-justification about them. In contrast, Sandy's self-deprecating manner and tendency to British understatement read very well. For example, he tells us some of the names he was called, both during and after the campaign, including arrogant, incompetent and cowardly - the latter mainly for taking the very obvious precaution of stationing his two aircraft carriers well to the east of the Falklands, out of range of Argentinian aircraft and missiles. He deals with some of these criticisms, in a tolerant and civilised manner, in the preface to this updated 2012 edition; and elsewhere he describes himself simply as "a bloke who found himself in charge".
Of course in reality he was much more than that. His account of his naval training and career reminded me of the excellent book "Highest Duty" by Captain Chesley Sullenberger - the pilot who landed his plane and passengers safely on the Hudson River - in the sense that, with hindsight, it becomes clear that what has gone before was a highly effective preparation for the moment when all of this knowledge and skill are to be tested to the limit, and as a result the bloke in charge is able to deliver the goods. But it's not all serious stuff here, by any means - there are moments of memorable humour, such as the night during an exercise when his Exocet-armed destroyer, with the help of a Peter Sellers impersonator, gets the better of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea. There are other hilarious moments in the book, including one in the Epilogue which I won't describe here so as not to spoil it for prospective readers; suffice to say, it would almost justify a spontaneous whip-round among Amazon readers! Another remarkable, but rather less amusing, incident is revealed when the Falklands task force, while on its way south, took a Brazilian airliner for an Argentinian spy plane and came within one minute of shooting it down.
The story of the war itself contains many extracts from the author's own diary of events and, as you would expect, is told mainly from the Royal Navy's point of view. It makes for an exciting read, by turns tragic and inspiring, and offers candid insights into the preoccupations of command, the painful decisions that have to be faced, and the inevitability of upsetting some people some of the time. Sandy gives us clear explanations of events, as well as a real feeling for the formidable trials undergone by men and their equipment at war. The author, and his readers, feel for the sailors in 'Sheffield', 'Coventry', the frigates and in 'Belgrano' too. He pays many generous tributes to the bravery and skill of his ships' crews and commanders; he writes moving words about the dead, the injured and the defeated. Far from glorifying the hellish business of warfare, he takes a sympathetic and humane view of those servicemen who suffered mental stress and breakdown; and he pays a remarkable tribute to David Tinker, the anti-war sailor who was killed on board HMS Glamorgan.
The Admiral does, on the other hand, have some harsh words for the pathetic British anti-aircraft missile systems that wouldn't work, and for some of the politicians too - not only the jumped-up little dictators of Galtieri's ruling junta, but the Brits' own John Nott as well, the latter coming over pretty clearly as one of the worst Defence Secretaries ever. But, unlike some other writers, the author doesn't cast public aspersions on his comrades-in-arms; in fact he goes out of his way to take responsibility when things go wrong - as they often did, and especially in the case of the worst British cock-up of the war at Bluff Cove. He did, of course, agree to the plan to take two troopships into the bay to disembark the Welsh and Scots Guards at Fitzroy; but in doing so he couldn't possibly have imagined that some fool was going to defy widely accepted practice - as well as basic common sense and Major Southby-Tailyour's orders - with the brilliant idea of keeping the soldiers cooped up for several hours in the undefended Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, waiting for the Argentine air force to fly in and bomb, burn and kill them. No, Admiral, that was not your fault.
Altogether this is an exciting, moving and superbly told story, and a fine job also by the Admiral's co-author Patrick Robinson. Between them, they are remarkably successful in capturing the essence of events, in bringing us an overall view tinged with sadness and an appropriate dose of philosophical reflection. Sandy's dry British humour reads well, and his informal but matter-of-fact style is never, ever condescending. He comes across as a humane and thoroughly modern commander, who understands the technology of modern warfare as well as the equally complex workings and stresses of the human mind. And, of course, he doesn't need to justify himself - he not only won a war with his task force but, to borrow his own penchant for understatement, he wrote a pretty good book about it too. So all credit to him for both of those achievements.