In 1982, Britain went to war in the Falklands, relying for the last time on an aircraft that was entirely made within the country: the Harrier Jump Jet. Not only this, but the head of the department that produced the revolutionary vertical take-off and landing aircraft was Sydney Camm, who had designed the Battle of Britain’s Hurricane fighter.
Echoes of World War II resound throughout Rowland White’s gripping book. But it is also a reminder of what an extraordinary conflict the Falklands War was itself. It combined so many military features: a Task Force at sea, dogfights,
air attacks on naval vessels, submarine attacks, amphibious landings, land battles, special forces, and strategic bombing. And it underlined a British sense of exceptionalism that lately has done the country little good.
By the 1980s, the Royal Navy had been savagely cut back, reduced to a support force for NATO and the provider of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, Polaris.
HMS Ark Royal, the last of the big carriers, had gone for scrap. HMS Invincible was about to be sold to Australia. So when the First Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, assured Margaret Thatcher that Britain could send a Task Force and recapture occupied territory 8,000 miles away, he was partly thinking of the need to justify the Navy’s case for continued funding.
As we all know, a Task Force was assembled at high speed, led by HMS Invincible and Hermes, carrying two squadrons of Sea Harriers for defence. The 20 Harriers were up against about 200 aircraft of the Argentinian Air Force and had to operate without an airborne early warning radar system. The whole project looked impossible. Many were convinced it would end in disaster.
White uses declassified documents from the National Archives, interviews with British veterans, and interviews with Argentinian pilots published after the war to create a dramatic narrative.
At the centre of his story is 809 Squadron, formed as a reserve to the tiny fighter force, out of which many brave and colourful characters emerge.
The British were lucky on two occasions early after the real fighting started. The Harriers shot down two Mirages of an elite Argentinian squadron. The remaining squadron aircraft never came out again. And on the day when the Argentinians prepared for a South Atlantic version of Midway, when aircraft from their sole carrier 25 de Mayo prepared to attack the British carriers, the usually strong South Atlantic gusts calmed and, using old catapults, there was not enough wind to get airborne. The next day, the British submarine sank the Belgrano. The Argentinian carrier was withdrawn and never tried to attack again.
White’s vivid descriptions of aerial dogfights put the reader in the cockpit. He writes using the lingo of the Fly Boys, who, like their WWII predecessors, still called ‘Tally-ho’ as they went into attack. There were 23 ‘kills’, plus Exocet attacks, sinkings and tragedies, heroics and triumphs. All of this is enhanced by having the Argentinian accounts of the action as well as the British.
White’s well-researched and pacy book is a reminder of what a close-run thing the Falklands War was. Ultimately, the better trained, more professional side won. And the iconic Harrier played a significant role in that victory.
Review by Taylor Downing.
HARRIER 809: Britain’s legendary jump jet, and the untold story of the Falkands War, Rowland White, Bantam Press, £20 (hbk), ISBN 978-1787631588.