Small Wars Journal

Book Review - Across an Angry Sea: The SAS in the Falklands War

Sat, 11/28/2020 - 8:09pm

Book Review - Across an Angry Sea: The SAS in the Falklands War

By: Matthew A. Hughes

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

 

Across an Angry Sea: The SAS in the Falklands War is Lieutenant General Cedric Delves’s first-hand account of 22 Special Air Service (SAS) involvement in the 74-day war between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. Commanding D Squadron, 22 SAS throughout the war, Delves played a central role in this special forces unit, which emerged as a pivotal player in the British war effort. Delves directed his men in a variety of ground operations, leading military historian Max Hastings to declare that no “man saw more than he did at the sharp end of the 1982 action in the South Atlantic.”1 Written with this blend of authority and experience, Across an Angry Sea is a rich reservoir of primary source material on SAS contributions and decisions at the tactical and operational levels, albeit with bias and few references to outside research material for evidence.

The book’s title is an excerpt from a poem inscribed on the 22 SAS barracks clock tower that embodies the unit’s expeditionary nature, manifested in this conflict at the vestiges of the imperial frontier in the South Atlantic, nearly 13,000 kilometers from the homeland. Delves prefaces his account by stating, “[t]his is the story of their part in an historic event as seen through my eyes,”2 and the book unfolds from the perspective of Delves seeking to leverage the niche capabilities of his elite force for decisive results. He begins with his unit’s rapid preparations to deploy following the surprise Argentinian invasion of the Falklands.3 With limited guidance from his commander and a perceived tendency among leaders to neglect the SAS early on in the war, Delves demonstrated disciplined initiative as he jockeyed for high-risk, high-reward missions in what he described as a quest for relevance. An early reconnaissance mission ends catastrophically due to poor decision-making and weather, but Delves’s proactivity pays off when his unit leads the assault reclaiming South Georgia and completes strategic taskings in the Falkland Islands. Content flows chronologically through chapters detailing the planning and execution of named operations. Descriptions of raids, reconnaissance missions, and direct action convey the SAS’s versatility and value leading up to the Argentinian surrender. The structure and author’s ability to pair tactical operations with their strategic results adeptly convey the SAS’s contributions in the Falklands War.

The narrative tone alternates between the calmness of an operator during high-stakes missions and emotional reflection post-mission, taking on a didactic quality for impassioned topics such as trust and professionalism.4 Delves writes for an audience unfamiliar with the Falklands War, providing maps and occasional footnotes deciphering military jargon. He lists only six formal citations, however, frequently summarizing information without reference material, such as a footnote about Argentinian losses by airframe attributing statistics to “reliable Argentine sources.”5 Such scant documentation diminishes the reliability of information presented. The tendency weakens the book’s academic standing and hinders further research.

Delves occasionally frames analysis in terms of Clausewitzian theory, albeit indirectly, as he does not cite the Prussian theorist or consistently apply concepts. Delves describes two aircraft carriers as the center of gravity to justify task force priorities and convey the magnitude of danger when SAS operations necessitate a carrier taking risks.6 He alludes to the political structure of Clausewitz’s “paradoxical trinity”7 as he assesses how mission failure might cause British popular support to fade, ultimately sealing British defeat. Delves discusses the role of chance and attributes some SAS successes to fortuitous circumstances, the essence of his remark that, “[f]ate can turn on impulse and so it proved for us.”8 Despite the Falklands War’s idiosyncrasies, this incorporation of theory shows how enduring concepts of warfare shaped this conflict and that Delves’s observations have relevance in the broader study of combat.

The book’s greatest strengths are the narrative’s authenticity and exceptional portrayal of how friction and the fog of war threaten mission command.9 Delves provides a forthright account of his decisions. He outlines dissent and concurrence from others during planning phases, which renders a more complete picture regarding risk acceptance and perspective. Rather than eulogize successes, Delves analyzes mistakes. His humble admissions of failure, describing how he became isolated from his unit during a night march or “shelled [his] own troops” during a raid, provide new insights on the Falklands War and lessons about leadership and personal growth.10

The most notable of the book’s shortfalls is the absence of a conclusion. The narrative ends abruptly with D Squadron observing the Argentinian surrender at Fort Stanley. This omission was a missed opportunity for Delves, who went on to command 22 SAS and served in the British Army for nearly 23 years after the Falklands War. His commentary confines adaptation to events during the war, rather than examining enduring changes. There is a gap regarding lessons learned and reflections about how the war influenced unit culture, training, or contingency planning. Such a perspective would have been a fitting finale for his aim to share the SAS’s story in the war.

This candid tale will resonate with those who appreciate first-hand accounts of warfare and lessons discovered through honest introspection. While bias likely influenced perceptions about personalities in the narrative, this book lacks the self-aggrandizement frequent in war memoirs and possesses a refreshing plainness in recounting both successes and failures. Delves adeptly delivers on his portrayal of a professional soldier leading men in a complex environment against an enemy not always abiding by the norms of war.

 

1. Cedric Delves, Across an Angry Sea: The SAS in the Falklands War (London: Hurst & Company, 2018), xv.

 

2. Delves, xiii.

 

3. Delves fails to elaborate on factors behind the invasion or ensuing conflict. He also neglects to share his relevant pre-war experiences. As a young captain in 1976, Delves was sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina to train four SAS bodyguards assigned to the British chargé d’affaires after a nationalist group bombed the British ambassador’s residence. On this see Nicholas Shakespeare’s “The Falklands War revisited” in New Statesman 148, no. 5454 (2019): 38-43. As tensions regarding the Falkland Islands increased under Isabel Perón and the military junta replacing her in 1976, Delves became acutely aware of the sovereignty controversy. Even so, the brazen invasion of the Falklands in April 1982 surprised Delves just as much as other Britons less familiar with the dispute.

 

4. Delves emphasizes the need for commanders, staff, and those in supporting roles removed from the battlefield to trust leaders on the ground, rather than questioning their decisions. His narrative becomes instructive and pejorative in describing the differences between professional soldiers and conscripts. He recounts examples of Argentinian conscripts violating the Geneva Conventions, including a searchlight from an Argentinian hospital ship fixating on a boat full of G Squadron operators during a night mission (page 312) and a captured sniper who had expanding rounds (page 261).

 

5. Delves, 287. Delves’s word choice presents ambiguity, as reliable and source—especially about a foreign national—frequently denote human intelligence. In this case, however, the labeling constitutes nothing more than a vague description. On this, see Robert P. Whalen Jr.’s “Bimble in the dark: Tactical intelligence in the Falklands War” in Marine Corps Gazette 82, no. 3: 58-63, which describes the British Army’s severe limitations for human intelligence collection throughout the Falklands War.

 

6. Delves, 115 and 155. For a description and theoretical applications, see Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, reprint (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 485-487.

 

7. von Clausewitz, 89. For discussion on national resolve and potential impacts, see Delves, 131 and 293.

 

8. Delves, 12. Regarding this concept of chance and its applications in warfare, see Clausewitz, 89, 101, 104, and 167.

 

9. These terms are also attributed to Clausewitz and serve to reiterate the previous point made regarding the relevance of Delves’s observations. For more on these concepts, see Clausewitz, 101 and 119-121.

 

10. Delves, Across an Angry Sea, 168 and 215.

About the Author(s)

Captain Matthew A. Hughes serves as a Western Hemisphere Foreign Area Officer. He is currently a Master of International Public Policy student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He earned a BS in Arabic/Spanish and a minor in Terrorism Studies at the United States Military Academy and earned a MA in Intelligence Studies at American Military University.