Admiral who led sea operation to recapture Falklands
John Woodward - born: May 1st, 1932; died: August 4th, 2013
Taskforce commanders Jeremy Moore and Sandy Woodward (right) during the Falklands campaign. Photograph: Martin Cleaver/PA Wire
Admiral Sir John Woodward, known as “Sandy”, who has died aged 81, led the naval expeditionary force that recaptured the Falkland Islands from Argentinian occupiers 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. He candidly admitted in his memoirs that “no one would ever have heard of me but for the events of 1982”.
Argentina invaded the Falklands on April 2nd, 1982, leaving Margaret Thatcher’s government in London caught unawares. Even the defence secretary, John Nott, regarded the occupation as irreversible until briefed otherwise by the first sea lord and chief of naval staff, Admiral Sir Henry Leach. On April 3rd, Thatcher announced that an amphibious operation would be mounted with the objective of retaking the islands.
In overall command was admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, commander-in-chief of the fleet, while 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 – 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.
Woodward was 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 destroyers to the south of the exclusion zone around the Falklands, declared by the British as a free-fire area.
Woodward, who had spent much of his career in submarines, felt he should have had control of the British nuclear boats sent to shadow the Argentinian navy and signalled his frustration by ordering HMS Conqueror to attack the Belgrano, which he had no authority to do. Northwood, the British military headquarters, countermanded this order, while Fieldhouse and admiral of the fleet Sir Terence Lewin, chief of defence staff, sought the prime minister’s permission.
The submarine was allowed to attack the cruiser, just as the US, Peru and other parties were trying to mediate. More than 300 men died when the Belgrano went down, and a massive controversy erupted because the ship had been outside the maritime exclusion zone and sailing away from the Falklands and the taskforce. It was only in 2003 that the Belgrano’s captain, Hector Bonzo, revealed that he was under orders, and also very keen, to turn round and attack the British.
Woodward was born in Penzance, Cornwall, and entered the navy on a scholarship as an officer cadet in 1946, aged 13. After various courses and posts at sea, he found himself at the HMS Dolphin submarine training establishment. Eventually, as lieutenant commander, he passed the notorious “Perisher” test for would-be submarine captains. Asked which boat he would now like to command, the brash Woodward named HMS Dreadnought, Britain’s first nuclear submarine. He commanded two diesel-electric submarines and became the “teacher” of the Perisher course before taking over the nuclear HMS Warspite. After staff posts and command of the Sheffield, in 1981 he was appointed rear admiral and flag officer of the first flotilla.
Knighted with a KCB after the Falklands War, he became flag officer, submarines, and Nato commander of submarines in the eastern Atlantic. His final post before retirement in 1989 was commander-in- chief, naval home command.
He married Charlotte McMurtrie in 1960; they had a son and a daughter, and later separated. He is survived by his companion, Winifred Hoult.