When they think of the Household Cavalry most envisage men wearing the uniform of the 1850s riding 17 hand black Irish draft horses along the Mall, but as no unit of the British Army is exclusively devoted to ceremonial duties, the Household Cavalry of two regiments, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, also has a combatant role, that of armoured reconnaissance. The author of Scimitar into Stanley, as a young captain, was detailed by his regiment to accompany HQ 5 Infantry Brigade to the Falkland Islands as a watch-keeper subsequent to the Argentine invasion of 1982, with a subsidiary brief to look after the two troops of the regiment accompanying the task force. 5 Brigade was the follow up formation travelling in the RMS Queen Elizabeth II, known as QE2, after the SS Canberra which transported 3 Commando Brigade.
Watch-keeping is an essential, although frequently boring task and involves manning the communications net, in the author’s case the operations radio nets, one forward from brigade to battalions, and one rear to HQ land forces Falklands. When fighting is not actually in progress the watch-keeper logs incoming SITREPS, situation reports where units report what has been happening, and LOCSTATS where they report the location of their sub units. When the shooting starts the watch-keeper must record what is happening and pass on requests for air, naval or artillery support as necessary. Like any young officer Field desperately wanted to get out of Brigade HQ and into the action, and his chance came when the commander of a Blues and Royals scimitar (an armoured, tracked reconnaissance vehicle mounting a 30mm Rarden cannon and a 7.62 machine gun), a corporal, was badly injured and had to be evacuated. Although senior in rank to the troop commander Field does not attempt to take over but continues the war as a subordinate vehicle commander.
Field tries hard to display the typical cavalry attitude of not appearing at all keen, but like most cavalry officers is actually thoroughly professional under the disguise. He is a natural cynic, or perhaps sceptic, and is scathing about the failings of 5 Brigade, and particularly of the Brigade commander, Tony Wilson. While initially feeling that it is rather bad form for Field to decry publicly the hand that, however imperfectly, tried to feed him, this reviewer, not in the Falklands but knowing many of the personalities mentioned, has to agree that many of the criticisms are valid. While some allowances must be made for the fact that the composition of 5 Brigade was cobbled together at the last minute (its two parachute battalions were removed to reinforce 3 Command Brigade, and hurriedly replaced by two Guards battalions whose recent operational experience had been in Northern Ireland), nevertheless the author’s futile attempts to get anyone to listen to his advice on the best use of armoured recce vehicles is enough to make one (almost) weep.
The failure of Wilson to properly employ the troop he had under command almost certainly led to more casualties than necessary. Only Colonel David Chaundler, commanding 2 Para, was prepared to listen and he took Field under his wing and is rightly praised for it. While one cannot libel the dead, it is clear that Wilson was quite unfit to command a brigade in war, and should have been removed and replaced before deployment (as the then Commander of the General Staff admitted long afterwards). The author rightly castigates British intelligence for failing to identify the Argentine preparations for invasion, but is rather unfair to Margaret Thatcher whom he blames for the war. One might opine that any other British politician would just have rolled over and let the Argentines get away with it. As it was what many saw as an inevitable decline in British influence and regard by the world was halted and reversed.
There have been many books written about the Falklands War, usually from a more lofty perspective, but this is one of the few written from a worms eye view and is fascinating for that. Although the author pulls no punches in exposing what he sees as incompetence and hidebound stubbornness, he gives praise where it is due and in the latter part of the book is remarkably honest as to his own reactions, with what would now probably be termed as post-traumatic stress. The RAF will not like this book, and nor will a number of people mentioned in it, but as an honest account of one young officer’s war it is an invaluable addition to the history of that campaign and while some civilian readers may not entirely appreciate the army humour, it is highly recommended.
Scimitar Into Stanley: One Soldier’s Falklands War by Roger Field is out now and published by Pen & Sword.
Gordon Corrigan is a historian and writer and author of The Battle of Stalingrad: Tipping Points of History.