Paul Brown, Abandon Ship: The Real Story of the Sinkings in the Falklands War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021. 320 pp.
Review by Dr. Chuck Steele, PhD
International Journal of Naval History
In Abandon Ship: The Real Story of the Sinkings in the Falklands War, maritime historian Paul Brown offers detailed accounts of the destruction of six British ships and the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. Whether one is a serious student of naval affairs, or someone with a general interest in the Falklands War, reading this book will be time well spent. It is meticulous in its treatment of technologies and personalities, generally informative about the course and conduct of the war, and thoroughly engaging as a study of naval warfare at the tactical level. In a campaign that marked the terminus for naval combat involving the limited use of precision-guided munitions (PGMS), Brown illuminates the emerging complexities and dangers attendant upon operating naval forces amid a paradigm shift. Relying extensively upon reports from boards of inquiry, Brown provides a wealth of information that is technologically specific and unsparing in its criticism of the conflict’s key players.
Using Freedom of Information Act requests to create the most complete accounts of the sinking of the six British ships publicly available, Brown’s contribution to understanding the Royal Navy’s worst moments in the 1982 conflict is without equal. However, Abandon Ship is not only worth reading for its insights but also for the author’s willingness to make strong arguments about the decisions that put each of the ships examined in peril. Indeed, Brown promises critical analysis and strong conclusions, and he delivers.
The book is sensibly divided into nine chapters, of which seven treat the loss of each ship with individual attention. The first chapter provides a concise overview of the Falklands War and is followed by seven chapters discussing the sinkings—progressing in chronological order—from the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano to Her Majesty’s ships Sheffield, Ardent, Antelope, and Coventry, with chapters seven and eight concentrating on the losses of the non- warships; SS Atlantic Conveyor and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Sir Galahad. The book’s final chapter offers a summation of “lessons learned” and does not lack sharpness in dealing with tactical and operational level decision-makers.
One target of Brown’s criticism is senior task group commander Rear Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward. While blame is attached to several officers in nearly every chapter, Woodward’s place as the senior naval officer in the theatre makes him the recurring focus of Brown’s most severe attention. Repeatedly, Brown takes notice of Woodward’s shortcomings as perceived by veterans such as Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward (perhaps the best-known naval aviator of the campaign). Indeed, Brown uses Ward as a vehicle to question the suitability of Woodward, a submariner, for command in a crisis that was dominated by aerial threats. At times this criticism seems a bit excessive, as there is not a corresponding effort to explain how Woodward came to gain the trust of the Royal Navy to warrant his post.
If the criticism seems harsh at times, it should not be mistaken as gratuitous. Abandon Ship is, at its core, a book of reckoning. One of its greatest services is to be direct in questioning the actions of those involved in the worst event that can befall a ship in a warzone. In this regard, the book is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to gain a greater appreciation for the tactical level of the Falklands War. Each sinking is treated as a unique engagement that involved peculiar circumstances and reactions. The chapters could be seen as stand-alone case studies, but combined as they are, Abandon Ship becomes a highly focused history of how these singular events fit together to comprise an entire naval campaign.
In this book, Brown demonstrates that he is both an excellent maritime historian and a more than capable writer. Although the book is repetitive in places, this is far from being a significant fault. At times, the redundancies are even useful. Seeing names and ranks repeated in full helps to maintain some order when several characters are caught up in chaotic events. The same holds true for Brown’s descriptions of technologies. The more frequently systems are discussed/explained only enhances the book’s potential to serve as a series of case studies for anyone wanting to exploit any single chapter for use in a broader course discussing this moment in naval history. In this regard, each and all of the chapters involving sinkings could serve well in a course on technology and warfare.
Considering that roughly as many years have passed since the Falklands War and the present, as passed between that war and the Second World War, a study of this sort was long overdue. As Brown makes clear, the Falklands War entailed a naval campaign at a crossroads in the history of naval warfare. This book brings the unique challenges faced by British and Argentinian sailors and airmen into greater focus than anything yet in print. Abandon Ship offers solid analysis that is well organized and clearly communicated. It is a book worth owning.