August 29, 2002
A Cautionary Tale

British Admiral Sandy Woodward -- commander of the Falklands naval battle group during Britain's war with Argentina in the 1980s -- tells the story of a pre-Falklands naval exercise in which he, with one British destroyer, three frigates, and four Exocet missiles, 'sank' the US fleet carrier Coral Sea. A cautionary tale:


I was clear in my mind what I wanted to practise: the US battle group, with all its escorts and aircraft, was to take up positions well out to sea. Their job was to stop my force from getting through their guard to 'sink' their carrier before they 'sank' us. Admiral Brown was happy enough with that -- if you had been in his position, you would have been too. He could spot an enemy surface ship more than two hundred miles away, track it at his leisure, and strike it at a comfortable range with any six of his missile-launching attack aircraft. And that was only the first layer of his defence. By any modern military standard, he was well-nigh impregnable.

I had Glamorgan and three frigates, plus three Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, two of which were tankers and the third, a stores ship. The frigates were all anti-submarine ships and not capable of doing serious harm to an aircraft carrier, short of ramming it. Only Glamorgan, with her four Exocets and effetive range of twenty miles, could inflict real damage on the Coral Sea, and Admiral Brown knew this. Thus my flagship was the only threat to him; his only real target.

We were due to start not a moment before twelve noon and not a mile less than 200 from the American carrier. She sat in the middle of this vast stretch of clear blue water, under clear blue skies -- effective visibility: two hundred and fifty miles. Admiral Brown was, so to speak, at the centre of a well-defended exclusion zone and I did not even have the benefit of a cloud bank, let alone fog or rain or heavy seas. No cover. No hiding place. No air support of my own either.

I ordered my ships to split up and take positions all around the two-hundred-mile perimeter by 1200 and then to hurry in as best they could -- a sort of maritime Charge of the Light Brigade from all directions. Three-quarters of an hour before we were due to start, bless my soul if a US fighter didn't appear, spot us, identify us and hurry home to tell the boss what he had found, where it was and where it was going. We couldn't 'shoot it down' -- the exercise had not yet begun! But we may just have lost this one before the starting gates were open. Stand by for a decisive American airstrike against Glamorgan, just as soon as they can lay it on.

However, you have to keep on trying and there was nothing left to do but give it our best shot. This basically involved reversing course eastwards and racing around the two-hundred-mile circle, the other way, as fast as we could go. Three hours later, we heard the US strike aircraft go in 100 miles west of us. They found nothing and went home. Nevertheless, as the day wore on, they picked off my ships steadily. Except for one: they failed to find Glamorgan again, the only ship they really had to stop, the only one who could sink the carrier. We were on the loose, and they could not find us.

Finally, the Americans 'struck' my last frigate and, as the sun set over the Arabian Sea and night began to stream in, Glamorgan turned into the two-hundred-mile zone. The dusk faded to darkness and I ordered every light in the ship to be switched on, plus as many extras as we could find. I intended that from any distance we should look like a cruise liner -- from the bridge we looked like a floating Christmas tree.

We barrelled on through the tense night, in toward the USS Coral Sea, listening all the time to the International Voice radio frequencies. Sure enough, eventually one of the American destroyer captains came on line, asking us to identify ourselves. My in-house Peter Sellers imitator, already primed for the job, replied in his best Anglo-Indian: 'This is the liner Rawalpindi, bound from Bombay to the port of Dubai. Good night, and jolly good luck!' He sounded like the head waiter at the Surbiton Tandoori. But it was good enough. The Americans, who were conducting a 'limited war', were rather obliged to believe us and let us through while they thought about it. Vital minutes slipped by until we were eleven miles from their carrier, with our Exocet system locked on to her. They still thought are splendid display of lights was the Rawalpindi on her innocent business.

Doubt, however, began to enter their minds. And the signs of confusion were revealed when the carrier's escorts got over-excited and two of their big destroyers managed to 'open fire' on each other, over our heads. We could hear the glorious uproar on the radios. Then one of my officers calmly called the carrier to break the appalling news to Tom Brown that we were now in a position to put his ship on the bottom of the Indian Ocean and there was nothing he could do about it. 'We fired four Exocets twenty seconds ago,' he added for good measure, knowing this gave them about forty-five seconds to hit the deck... about half as much notice as Sheffield would receive, six months from now.

The Coral Sea was given no time to get her chaff up -- and the American knew as well as we did that he was effectively non-operational. He has lost his 'mission critical' unit and with it his air force.

Understandably, we were all elated, but also a little embarrassed by this at first. We did, however, realize that Tom Brown had a serious and proper preoccupation with the real world, and that our own particular brand of carefree 'cheekiness' was undoubtedly born of the unarguable fact that we knew that we weren't really going to be sunk no matter what happened, were we? A debriefing along these lines very soon restored our sense of proportion, and with it a calm assessment of what could usefully be learned.

It was nonetheless an important exercise for me because it taught me two vital lessons. The first was to beware of becoming over-engrossed in one area of operations at the risk of ignoring another. The second was that, in a limited war, in perfect weather, under the cover of darkness, one fairly old destroyer or crusier, or whatever, is capable of getting right up to within eleven miles of a modern strike carrier in a full battle group. We had just done so from over two hundred miles away even in the face of Airborne Early Warning Aircraft up over the top and an armada of strike aircraft against us. We had proved that it could be done.

Therefore, reads the moral of this tale, take caution should you ever find yourself as a battle group commander in these circumstances, because it is fairly likely that in bad weather, you could lose the battle. This is especially true in a really determined attack in which your enemy is prepared to lose several ships to sink your carrier -- which he should always be, because when your carrier goes your air force and very likely your entire campaign goes with it. Six months on, I was to face a very similar sort of situation, this time for real. And thanks to those few hours with the Coral Sea, I would have a clearer idea of how to proceed...

From Sandy Woodward (with Patrick Robinson) (1992), One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press), pp. 64-66.


Addenda: Two things come to mind. The first is that this passage has one of those 'there will always be an England' qualities. I mean, embarrassment as your emotional reaction... 'Frightfully sorry, chap. I don't know what to say. I'm so embarrassed. I didn't mean to sink your carrier in the midst of its sea and air escorts with one destroyer and three frigates...'

The second is something that my brother knew (and I did not) and that he pointed out to me: the name Rawalpindi has significance: the British auxiliary merchant cruiser Rawalpindi took on and was destroyed by the Nazi battlecruiser Scharnhorst southeast of Iceland in November 1939. Anyone in the Coral Sea's Combat Information Center who had been marinated in naval history (more than I have been) would have heard alarm bells ringing in his head at the name 'Rawalpindi'. Woodward and his people gave the Coral Sea and its battle group extra clues as to what was going on.

Posted by DeLong at August 29, 2002 01:52 AM | Trackback

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hrrrm .... the Rawalpindi is also the name of a pretty well-known curry house in Twickenham, and call me a cynic, but I would think that the joker on the bridge would be more likely to have been marinated in tandoori spices than in naval history ...

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 29, 2002 01:49 AM

Ok, Ok, A little bit of Indian History would help too: A ship named Rawalpindi (a city in Pakistan) from Bombay?

Didn't the Coral Sea have the Lloyds Registry lookup to verify the existence of such ship?

fascinating tale, nevertheless.

Posted by: Suresh Krishnamoorthy on August 29, 2002 07:48 AM

It took me a while to get clear that this exercise
was real ships on real water, not a tabletop; but
obviously no one could have been fooled by a
the Peter Sellers/cruiseship routine in dry land
simulation. If the U.S. forces had really
sunk several enemy ships and were actively hunting
the last one, then "limited mission" or no I have to think they would have reacted very differently to a civilian ship proposing to cruise through the
battle zone. It's the old "I'm not playing/Oh yes I am/Tag you're it" routine of fond grade school playground memory. So I find it hard to be impressed. Of course, my maritime expertise ends with paddling a canoe.

Posted by: Ken Doran on August 29, 2002 09:55 AM

Checking dates here. This was a pre-Falklands War exercise, so pre-1982. Technology and the US military itself have changed since then. In other news, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airiner while operating in the Persian Gulf in July 1988. Link here:

http://www.fas.org/news/iran/1992/920721-236044.htm

This preceded Desert Storm, but was still a tense time.

The USS Cole was bombed in October 2000, and we presume security has been upgraded since then.

My impression is that civilians operating in, over, or around the Persian Gulf do so at their peril, if not already then soon. Still, a great story, and very Brit. And a nice reminder of who used to have the best Navy in the world, and why.

Regards,

Posted by: Tom on August 29, 2002 12:46 PM

Tom,

We might draw the opposite conclusion: that the Navy really hasn't learned much from its security failures in the pre-'82 era. After all, the USS Cole bombing was after this exercise. And I'm not sure that advanced technology would be an aid -- after all, the ship was within visual range! It wasn't cloaked, it was just disguised.

Posted by: Paul on August 29, 2002 07:17 PM

Woodward clearly learnt a lot from it. If I remember rightly, by the time the Falklands war came about he kept his (far less capable) carriers so far from the action it was said by some sections of the British press that he should have been awared a South African campaign medal.

Posted by: James Ridley on August 30, 2002 03:14 AM

South African campaign - oooh, they would make snarky blogers. And the Brits lost a cruiser to an Exocet, if dim memory serves.

As to the USS Cole, it was a small ship in port, not a capital ship at sea. Also, pre-1982 preceded the whole Reagan defense buildup and the re-vitalization of the US military. I would have to ask my (few) Navy buddys for their take on this. As to advanced technology, I am thinking of AWACS and the naval counterpart, but am not enough of a Tom Clancy buff to know when those planes were put into use. I am as yet unworried about the Romulan cloaking device.

Anyway, I don't think a vessel operating in the Persian Gulf would be ignored if it claimed to be the Love Boat. All that said, the basic point of the post is extremely valid - this is a dangerous business, and it's hard to be too trigger-happy.

Great weekend, all,

Posted by: Tom on August 30, 2002 06:57 PM

For those interested, Woodward's book on the Falklands is excellent reading -- it's one thing for the US to operate halfway around the world, but quite another for the smaller British forces (and to pull it off, too).

Posted by: Andrew Biggs on September 1, 2002 05:27 PM

It's important to remember the nature of naval exercises. Most of them take place in areas that have a large amount of civilian traffic, which isn't participating in the exercise. As a result, you have to deal with a lot of "real world" ships that simply wouldn't be there if there really was shooting going on. As far as the notional "cruise ship" would have been concerned, it wasn't a war zone, and the CVBG knew it, too.

That having been said, Woodward's ploy is in a long tradition of naval camoflage, and he executed it with skill and grace. It was as well done as any of which I have seen or heard.

Posted by: Christopher Weuve on September 7, 2002 08:12 AM

Note that a US carrier at least once went past Gibraltar (faking out the "what ship?" routine that Gibraltar did on all passing traffic) at night doing the same lighting trick, pretending to be a liner!

Posted by: Brooks A Rowlett on September 7, 2002 10:36 AM
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