“I Cannot Talk About Military Policy” Said the British Sailor

Somewhere back in the 1970s the British destroyer H.M.S. ‘Devonshire’ arrived for a visit at Haifa harbour as a guest of the Israeli navy and was moored there for a few days. In various arms of the IDF, small groups of officers gathered together and came to visit the destroyer on her captain’s invitation. I have never before visited any warship and I jumped at the opportunity, especially after a friend boasted to me that on a similar occasion he had visited the American aircraft carrier the ‘Nimitz’ and got me jealous.

We arrived at Haifa harbour and climbed the gangway leading to the destroyer. An officer met us with a series of ceremonial salutes and permissions to come aboard, where a senior sailor was attached to us and took us on a comprehensive tour of the ship, explaining the various weapon systems, from the guns and the radar to the ‘Lynx’ helicopter that was parked on the aft deck. At the end of the tour, under the barrel of one of the guns, the guy asked us if we had any questions. The memory of the sinking of the Israeli destroyer ‘Eilat’ was still quite fresh and I asked him if in this day of advanced anti-ship radar guided missiles there was still a place in maritime warfare for large destroyers like the ‘Devonshire’. The sailor was not too excited by the question and after thinking for a while said: “I cannot talk about military policy”.

A few years passed. On April 2nd 1982, thirty years ago today, Argentinian forces landed on the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic and took control of them. The British gathered a large task force that included aircraft carriers, commandos and marines and set out to retake the islands. At first it appeared that things were going well for the British when one of their submarines sunk the Argentinian warship “General Belgrano”. But the Argentinians prepared a few surprises for the British, the most serious one was a squadron of ‘Super Etendard’ attack aircraft armed with French air-to-sea ‘Exocet’ missiles.

Within a few days, using these missiles as well as bombs dropped from low flying aircraft, the Argentinians managed to sink four British destroyers and a cargo ship carrying many heavy ‘Chinook’ helicopters. Luckily for the British, many bombs dropped by the Argentinians from low altitude, including some that hit their ships directly, did not explode as the fuses did not have enough time flying in the air to become armed.

The British are known for their conservatism. Despite their victory on the ground and the surrender of the invading Argentinian forces, the Falklands war was a heavy blow to the British navy. It is likely that after it ended they started talking about military policy.

The destroyer ‘Devonshire’, by the way, did not take part in the Falklands war. Due to budget cuts it was decommissioned in 1978 and was offered for sale to Egypt. When this sale did not happen the destroyer was left at Portsmouth harbour for six years and in 1984 left on her final voyage to the North Atlantic where it was used as a target to new British ‘Sea Eagle’ air-to-sea missiles and two days later was sunk in a test firing of ‘Tigerfish’ torpedoes. The British finally learnt to ‘talk about military policy’.

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