Logistics in the Falklands War (Book) Review
by Australian Naval Institute, John Johnston
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military
Author: Kenneth L Privratsky
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THE South Atlantic conflict between 2 April and 14 June 1982 – the Argentine capture of the Falkland Islands and their dependencies and the British campaign to retake the islands – must count as one of the more incredible events in the history of the twentieth century. Much has been written about the conflict, with all writers pointing to the British achievement in mounting an expeditionary force from scratch and sustaining the campaign on a supply line that stretched through 100 degrees of latitude and 60 degrees of longitude.
Using the chronology of the conflict as a narrative framework, Privratsky describes how the Argentine military junta seized the opportunity presented by British political and military weakness to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute and how Admiral Sir Henry Leach exploited the confusion within Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet to win approval for mounting an expedition to retake the Falklands. He then recounts how the task force was assembled and supplied with materiel for the voyage south, how Ascension Island was transformed into a major logistics base, and how – despite ferocious air attacks – a land force was put ashore. The story then proceeds, by way of the battle of Goose Green, the march to Teal Inlet, and the horror of Bluff Cove – to the fighting through the minefields and mountains around Stanley and the Argentine surrender.
In that respect, Privratsky’s account does not substantially differ from better known accounts such as those of Robert Fox or Sir Max Hastings or of academic studies like those of Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman or Martin Middlebrook. Where, however, Privratsky differs from these studies is in showing how each aspect of the campaign was a discrete logistical problem that had to be resolved before operational actions could be undertaken. Ships, for example, had to be taken up from trade and adapted to become transports for troops and materiel, which necessitated negotiations with shipping companies and scheduling work in dockyards, while stores and materiel had to be brought to the ports of embarkation from depots in the UK and Germany, which required liaison with national transport authorities and commercial hauliers: until these actions had been completed, the task force could not sail. It is in illuminating and exploring such often-overlooked details and in the use of interviews and original sources that Privratsky’s work will be of most interest to historians who are studying the conflict in the future.
Privratsky, however, takes the story further and critically examines the weaknesses of the British military in responding to the Argentine assault. He exposes the lack of preparedness for combined operations, for the Royal Marines had not practised their principal task of opposed beach landings and the army had little understanding of maritime procedures, while the RAF operated almost autonomously. Once the task force had moved south, command and control over long distances became more and more difficult, leading to political interference in operational decisions and to security breaches through differences in time zones, as well as to the isolation of the task force headquarters from its subordinate formations. Privratsky notes that some of these weaknesses have been apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the logistical features of the campaign in the latter parallel the British experience in the South Atlantic. Here, he argues, the battle for the Falklands has lessons for today’s commanders and leaders, with military power once again emerging as instrument of state policy and with expeditionary forces becoming the norm rather than the exception.
‘Logistics in the Falklands War’ is, in short, a thorough account of how the British hastily improvised a task force to recapture lost territory. It shows how doing that was achieved by coordinating civilian and military assets and integrating the civilian assets into a military organisation; it reveals the complexities of managing logistics afloat and ashore and of integrating fundamentally different methodologies; finally, it demonstrates that expeditionary forces, in whatever environment they may deploy, must be self-sustaining, for the logistical line becomes more and more tenuous as the distance from the home base increases. As Privratsky presents the story, one may wonder at the British achievement but also draw discomforting lessons for the present.
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