Roger Field, many congratulations on the new title, Scimitar into Stanley. You’ve mentioned that as a member of HQ 5 Brigade on the journey down to the Falklands, you soon realised you needed to keep a diary. What was it about the Brigade Staff and leadership that encouraged you to write it?
I’d never worked in a Brigade (or Division) HQ before, but not only had I visited a couple of such headquarters on exercise but was also working in our Regimental Headquarters when I was detached to join the Task Force. My previous experience of such headquarters is that they tend to be buzzing centres of irritating (at least to we more junior lot) ideas, packed full of steely-eyed thrusters issuing orders and humouring the even more focused and dynamic Brigadier.
After two days of hanging around with nothing happening in our HQ room on QE2 it began to become blindingly obvious that this Brigade HQ was so busy going around in circles that it did not seem to be capable of doing anything much – or anything much I could see. Hence, come evening two, and growing increasingly alarmed, I decided to start writing a diary lest I later came to wonder whether I had been imaging what I was witnessing. Reading my diary 39 years later – the first time I had looked at it since writing it – I blessed my foresight. The sense of lethargy and inability to get anything meaningful done that I recorded each day was far worse than I had remembered; time does tend to lessen bad memories.
That said, and to be fair to HQ 5th Infantry Brigade, they had been told they were heading South on almost no notice. They had had two of their three infantry battalions (2 and 3 Para) removed and two Guards battalions inserted instead. They had a massive amount of catching up to do. But, and then again, I called it as I saw it in my diary. When I showed Scimitar into Stanley to my publisher (senior ex-military himself) he was rather shocked and asked whether I was perhaps being “unfair”. I pointed to my quoted diary entries and said “No”. What has been said by others since has been in some cases far more critical and strident including that the top generals nearly sacked the Brigadier (Tony Wilson) and came to regret not doing so.
How would you characterise your journey after leaving Southampton to arriving in the conflict zone?
One of unvarnished luxury! Someone had obviously, and mistakenly, decided that we junior watchkeeper captains were far more important than we really were – more Brigade HQ incompetence I suspect, but incompetence we were mightily grateful for – and assigned us a full on stateroom on the Queen Elizabeth 2, with outside private balcony (plus sun loungers) and fitted fridge. Take it from me, this is the only way to travel the tropics, even if we were heading into a war. We ate superbly and the crew could not do enough for us. However, the mood changed as the weather worsened as we neared the Falklands. We transhipped to Canberra – which was by now ‘dry’ – and whoever had assigned us that stateroom made up for their mistake by putting us in the worst type of cabin in the bowels of the ship. Not that it made much difference. The weather was so foul that most of us ended up seasick for a couple of days. If it were not for what was awaiting us on the Islands we would have been very relieved to get off that ship.
How did your end up joining 2 Para for the Battle of Wireless Ridge – that wasn’t the original plan was it?
No it was not. I was meant to see out the war manning a Brigade HQ radio. However, I had not come 8000 miles to just sit behind a radio (important job though it might be). I had recently completed a ‘long’ gunnery course and so was completely up to date with the strengths and weaknesses of the Scorpion and Scimitar armoured cars of my regiment The Blues and Royals that had been sent down with 3 Commando Brigade in the first wave. I tried to get my own Brigadier to listen to what I had to tell him about how best to use them. He said he wanted to know. He never had time to do so. By the time we got to 11 June at Fitzroy I was furious at this disinterest. 2 Para had been given 3 Troop (2 Scorpions, 2 Scimitars) under command. I bumped into and told Chris Keeble (2 ic 2 Para) what they could – and could not – do. He told me to repeat this to Colonel Chaundler, the CO. The Colonel listened. Hard. The very first person to do so. He then looked at his watch. The battalion was flying to Mount Kent imminently, would I like to join them? Of course I would.
In an instant I was transformed from being a radio watchkeeper (dull, but safe) to being part of 2 Para (somewhat hairier…)
You’ve described action on Wireless Ridge brilliantly – but also your sense of disappointment in the immediate aftermath. What do you think about the battle now, 40 years on?
The truth is that I try not to think about it! It was an extraordinary night for a multitude of reasons. I did what I had come all that way to do; fight. But that comes with a price as everything does. A few years after I had left the army I bumped into a chum who was at Staff College (where that generation’s ‘top’ majors are taught to become generals). He told me that they were teaching Wireless Ridge as the ‘textbook’ all-arms battle, even including my role in it as ‘armoured adviser’.
You took command of a Scimitar armoured car – did that provide some comfort against conditions in the Falklands, and what did you think of the Scimitar?
The Scimitar was a brilliant armoured car, at least for 1982. It could go almost anywhere, drive over anything and had a powerful and highly reliable Jaguar engine. It had a really vicious 30mm quick fire cannon and an amazing (again for 1982) night sight. In a battlefield without tanks to outgun us or an enemy with night sights to zero in on us, it was king.
At least at night. Fighting by day would have been a very different matter. Luckily we did not.
Getting off my frozen, sodden feet into a nice (ok freezing cold, but so what?) Scimitar felt like coming home. This is the environment I was trained to fight in. With men from my regiment who I knew and who knew me.
The leadership of Brigadier Tony Wilson, commander of 5 Brigade, has come under heavy criticism, not least in the recent Channel 4 documentary. What criticisms do you make?
I didn’t see the strategic blunders that others far senior to me now accuse him of. All I knew from my worm’s eye view was that he seemed inordinately pleased with himself; never seemed to be around to make a decision and, worst of all from my ‘cavalry’ perspective, he never listened to what I could tell him about the capabilities and weaknesses of the armoured cars he had under command. Had he spared me half an hour in the 3 weeks we spent on QE2 I believe a number of infantry lives could have been saved.
Wilson died in 2019 and so is not around to defend himself. Could one argue that his face didn’t fit due to him not being a Para or Marine, and it was that which has, at least in part, led to his reputation being besmirched over the years?
I think this had nothing to do with it. In fact a Marine (who is Royal Navy) could not have commanded an army brigade like 5 Brigade and there is an argument that a Para would not have been appropriate either: Paras tend to have a different style of swashbuckling fighting that is different to the more normal ‘Green’ army way of doing things. Brigadier Wilson, MC, should have been perfect for the job. Trouble was that he was not a dynamic leader who knew how to get things done at this higher level of command. Excellent, medal winning, company commanders do not necessarily make effective brigadiers.
3 Brigade has been able to direct the narrative of land operations during the Falklands War, not least because many journalists were alongside them. Do you think they have given a fair account?
I rather think the journalists called things as they saw it. Journalists certainly have plenty of experience of meeting self-promoters. They doubtless saw a natural grandstander in Brigadier Wilson within moments of meeting him and reacted accordingly.
What I do agree with in your question is that Paras and Commandos tend to make for better journalistic ‘copy’ in any event. We Brits love anything that smacks of Special Forces. However, had our Brigadier made a better job of things then I suspect that the press would have been praising him and 5 Brigade too. Instead, after the bombing of Galahad and Tristram at Fitzroy (certainly not the soldiers’ fault) they had a different story to investigate: the search for scapegoats.
Britain’s victory over Argentina revitalised the country, but could it easily have gone the other way and ended in defeat?
I think that anybody who has seen that San Carlos – Bomb Alley – footage as the Argentinean Air Force sent ship after ship to the bottom will know that it was a very close run thing.
As I went into the attack with 2 Para I had a very strong sense – based on nothing but instinct I hasten to say! – that we had to keep moving forward and winning and that, if the Argentines could only have held us for a day or two our logistics chain (ammo, food, water) would have struggled to keep us resupplied over those long distances (from San Carlos) and over that dreadful terrain. Had we started to be pushed back, it could have been game over for us. Don’t forget, there were many more of them than us with weapons in their hands on the Islands.
You quote General Johnny Frost at the end of your piece for us, commemorating the performance of The Blues & Royals at Wireless Ridge. What are your memories of your comrades during the conflict?
All I can say in answer to this is two words: highly professional. And, Ok, I lied – men I was proud to fight alongside.
Roger Field is the author of Scimitar into Stanley: One Soldier’s Falklands War, published by Pen & Sword.