The death of Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward, Royal Navy, at age 81 on 4 August 2013 witnessed the passing of the Royal Navy’s most distinguished fighting admiral since World War II. He became the right rear admiral in the right place at the right time when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982. His whole career had prepared him for the daunting responsibility of retaking the islands, roughly 8,000 miles from the British Isles.
His good fortune was that he had three distinguished four-star admirals overseeing his command of the South Atlantic Task Force: Admiral Terence Lewin, the chief of the Defense Staff, who had joined the Royal Navy in 1939; Admiral John Fieldhouse, like Woodward a veteran submariner, and the Commander-in-Chief Fleet, headquartered at Northwood near London; and First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Henry Leach. All were veterans of World War II.
Woodward was trained in the school of hard knocks at Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth from the age of 13, becoming a submarine specialist and commanding the submarines Tireless, Grampus, and Warspite, two diesel boats and a nuclear attack submarine. Prior to that he had been the executive officer of the nuclear submarine Valiant. He was appointed “Teacher” of the Royal Navy Submarine command qualifying course, regarded as the most challenging of all Royal Navy sea command examinations, conducted at sea in the most stressful tactical scenarios. He was Captain Submarine Training, Director of Naval Plans, and in command of the destroyer Sheffield as a captain.
Woodward demonstrated all the fine qualities of naval leadership that his many illustrious predecessors of the previous 600 years had exemplified. He also became, from the moment he was given command, the absolute master of quick and decisive thinking, anticipation, and improvisation in the challenging tactical and weather conditions that the South Atlantic campaign required. He was tough, rugged, and expected of others what he gave of himself, leading by practice rather than precept. He claimed not to be an intellectual in the mold of Admiral Herbert Richmond, but in fact he was intellectually gifted, intensely quick at grasping and implementing what naval professionals have learned from operations research and the world of mathematics. Above all he understood the threat and vulnerabilities—and how to circumvent them by optimizing his resources.
He knew the limits of his assets—limited ISR, poor airborne early warning, the threat posed by the Exocet missile, and the intense risks to his force entering and landing at San Carlos Water. He measured those risks, planned accordingly and executed with great courage and daring the amphibious landings and defeat of the Argentinian air force. He executed with precision the hugely successful employment of British Special Forces—the Special Air Service and Special Boats Service. His relationship with the land force commander, Major General Jeremy Moore, Royal Marines, and the Commander of Third Commando Brigade, Brigadier Julian Thompson, Royal Marines, showed exemplary understanding of joint operations.
He inspired his fleet and when the inevitable losses occurred he maintained the focus of his mission and adapted accordingly to the changing tactical environment. He knew the risks to his fleet supply ships and oilers and key civilian vessels such as the Atlantic Conveyor carrying vital Chinook helicopters. When the multiple attacks came the crews he had inspired from the formation of the task force were never found wanting. He bore with courage the intense responsibility of ordering or requesting permission to attack vital Argentinian assets, such as the cruiser Belgrano, sunk by the British nuclear sub Conqueror in what subsequently became controversial circumstances. He weathered the latter storm, with the prime minister herself providing him with the personal top cover.
Adm. Woodward performed magnificently at a time when the Royal Navy was in the process of a major force reduction at the hands of the new Conservative Minister of Defense, John Knott, who had little or no knowledge of naval strategy, and certainly not maritime expeditionary operations. It was indeed ironic that in the midst of this major defense review and reduction Sandy Woodward led the most successful naval campaign since World War II, providing the Soviet Union with a major object lesson. Woodward also recognized the extraordinary support provided by the U.S. Navy, and the direct personal involvement of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and President, Ronald Reagan, the friend, admirer, and confidant of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Woodward’s later career did not take him to the ultimate high office that was his due—he never became C-in-C Fleet and then First Sea Lord. He was Flag Officer Submarines, a deputy chief of Defense Staff, and his last appointment, C-in-C Naval Home Command, all distinguished and highly demanding appointments that he executed with his usual aplomb and rigor. Woodward was an unbridled and outspoken advocate of naval power and in particular the use of maritime expeditionary forces. He was not the naval politician who, by his reckoning, amounted to and required subservience rather than outspoken advocacy. He believed that the queen, as Lord High Admiral, was owed the ultimate loyalty and, through her, service to the British people, not to the transitory and often wavering politicians that followed short term expedient agendas, such as John Knott.
In his retirement he remained an outstanding spokesman for naval power, criticizing the reduction of the Royal Navy to its current force levels of no aircraft carriers, no fixed-wing air power, and a submarine force that, while having outstanding platforms in the new Astute class, lacks numerical strength.
His passing may possibly and sadly represent the end of an era—but he would not have that so: He would rather take up the fight for a return to a British maritime strategy in the next strategic defense review that recognizes one inalienable fact in the history of the British people—that it is maritime power and that the Royal Navy is the single golden thread that runs through the fabric of Britain’s defense base.