For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Admiral Sir John (‘Sandy’) Woodward
Admiral Sir John (‘Sandy’) Woodward, who has died aged 81, commanded the carrier battle group Task Force 317.8 during the Falklands conflict.
In March 1982, shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, Woodward was serving as a rear-admiral and as Flag Officer, First Flotilla, commanding a group of ships on their spring exercise off Gibraltar.
As the news from the South Atlantic worsened, on March 29 Woodward received a routine visit by helicopter from the Commander-in-Chief Fleet to his flagship, the destroyer Antrim. That evening, along with Captain Mike Clapp, the captain of Antrim, they discussed their options if the Falkland Islands were to be invaded and they were asked to re-take them.
Argentina had long claimed the islands, and on April 2 1982, impatient at the progress of diplomatic talks, and wishing to distract their people from domestic woes, the Argentine junta ordered their forces to invade.
During the passage south Woodward visited as many ships as he could, though his message to the various ships’ companies of the destroyers and frigates, was uncompromising: “You’ve taken the Queen’s shilling. Now you’re going to have to bloody earn it. And your best way of getting back alive is to do your absolute utmost. So go and do it.”
The conflict was a maritime campaign from beginning to end, characterised by a struggle for air superiority between Woodward’s ships and the Argentine Air Force, and in its later phases by a series of amphibious landings.
On April 25 British forces recaptured South Georgia after sinking the Argentine submarine Santa Fe. Five days later Woodward’s ships got within gun range of the Falklands to begin a bombardment, and Sea Harriers from the carriers Hermes and Invincible attacked several targets, while an aerial battle continued over the islands; three Argentine aircraft were shot down.
On May 1 the submarine Conqueror, on patrol south of the islands, sighted the light cruiser General Belgrano. Woodward sought a change to the rules of engagement which would allow Conqueror to open fire, as General Belgrano was considered a threat to the Task Force. Conqueror, controversially, sank the Argentine warship, but as a result the Argentine fleet remained in port for the rest of the war.
Two days later, an anti-ship missile, launched from the air, struck the destroyer Sheffield, one of Woodward’s previous commands, setting her ablaze.
British troops landed at San Carlos Water on May 21, and by June 14 the Argentines had surrendered. Woodward was seen by many as the architect of victory, although there were some who, from the outset, had thought that the Flag Officer Third Flotilla (in charge of carriers and amphibious shipping) should have commanded the the Task Force, and made some criticism of Woodward’s tactics.
Woodward was appointed KCB in 1982.
John Forster Woodward was born on May 1 1932 in Penzance, the son of a bank clerk, and educated at Stubbington House school, once known as “the cradle of the Navy”, and the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
As a junior officer Woodward spent time in the Home Fleet, before specialising as a submariner in 1954. He served in three generations of submarines: the Second World War vintage submarine Sanguine; the post-war, diesel-powered Porpoise; and Valiant, the second of Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines.
In 1960 he passed the Navy’s rigorous submarine command course, the “perisher”, and given charge of the diesel-powered submarines Tireless and Grampus.
Subsequently he was second-in-command of Valiant, before promotion to commander when he became the officer-in-charge (or “teacher”) on the “pePrrisher”.
In December 1969 Woodward took command of Warspite, which was newly repaired after an underwater collision in the Barents Sea with (according to official sources) an “iceberg”. Several members of the crew were still shaken by the incident, and Woodward did much to restore their confidence in the safety of the boat and its manoeuvrability.
In submarines he was nicknamed “Spock”. “I was quite pleased,” he said, “because Spock does everything by logic.”
Promoted to captain in 1972, Woodward attended the Royal College of Defence Studies, where he disliked all the paperwork, and in 1974 he became Captain of Submarine Training. In 1976 he returned to general service, for the first time in more than 20 years, to command the Type 42 guided missile destroyer Sheffield.
As Director of Naval Plans from 1978 to 1981, during the Strategic Defence Review (also known as the Nott Review) in the first term of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, Woodward unsuccessfully opposed John Nott’s determination to make severe and “disproportionate” cuts in the Navy. The cuts included one-fifth of its destroyers and frigates, one aircraft carrier, two amphibious ships, and the ice patrol ship Endurance, whose declared withdrawal from the Antarctic encouraged the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in April 1982. Woodward felt keenly the irony that as Flag Officer, First Flotilla, from 1981 to 1983 he should have to clear up the mess created by politicians.
After the Falklands conflict Woodward was Flag Officer Submarines and Commander Submarines Eastern Atlantic in 1983–84.
Although Woodward had made prolific use of the radio-telephone during the Falklands conflict, talking to some of his subordinate commanders and to the Task Group Commander at Northwood, he had never spoken to Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, he did not come to know her until he was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments) during the period 1985–88, when he attended several Cabinet meetings.
At his first meeting, the Prime Minister’s advisers had not even sat down when she announced that she had read all the papers and explained what the government should do. Woodward realised that she had missed a point of detail and raised a hand to attract her attention. “If looks could kill, I was done for,” he would recall. “But I persisted, gave her the information she had missed and bought time for the other officials to gather their wits before further decisions were made.”
Later, when a senior civil servant told him: “You were very lucky today. You interrupted the PM – most don’t survive that,” Woodward replied: “She was talking – and needed some fearless advice, which she got.”
Woodward respected Mrs Thatcher, but had little time for most politicians, believing that they did not “have a clue about defence”. He was a stern critic of the Coalition government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.
While his detractors thought him somewhat cold and arrogant, those who knew him better insisted that he was modest, sensitive, humorous, clever and self-critical. He had been a gifted mathematician at school and was an avid bridge player from his school days.
Woodward’s memoirs, One Hundred Days: the memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (co-written with Patrick Robinson), are a frank account of the pressures experienced by a commander fighting a war, and is told with self-deprecating humour.
His last appointment in the service was as Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command (1987–89). He was appointed GBE in 1989.
Woodward left the Navy at the age of 57, and in retirement was chairman of the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel Trust, which raised £2.3 million. The chapel, at Pangbourne College, was opened by the Queen in 2000.
He settled at Bosham, near Chichester, West Sussex, where he could indulge his life-long passion for sailing in small boats.
Sandy Woodward married, in 1960, Charlotte McMurtrie, with whom he had a son and a daughter. They later separated, and since 1993 his companion had been Winifred “Prim” Hoult.
Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, born May 1 1932, died August 4 2013