When Russia’s flagship, Moskva, went to the bottom of the Black Sea on 14 April, it became the first major naval combattant sunk in war since a British submarine fired torpedoes into Argentina’s General Belgrano in the battle for the Falkland Islands, exactly forty years ago today. For me, though, the more pertinent memory of the South Atlantic war is the sinking of the British destroyer Coventry a little over three weeks later (pictured above). Someone I knew was among the dead, and some of the lessons still resonate.
In 1981, Lieutenant Commander Glen Robinson-Moltke was a Royal Navy exchange officer teaching anti-air warfare to Canadian students on the year-long course at the Fleet School in Halifax, which would qualify us to take charge of a ship’s operations room in combat. He taught us how to defend our ships against old-fashioned bombs of course, but dismissed the likelihood that we would ever have to do so, now that sophisticated missiles were the norm. In one of those many ironies of war, he was killed a year later when the destroyer in which he was serving was struck by three, old fashioned, free-fall bombs. The ship sank within twenty minutes and Glen’s body was never recovered.
Sadly, Coventry’s loss might have been avoided, had it not been for media attention. To stand their best chance against British air-defence missiles, Argentine pilots had to fly extremely low, releasing bombs at a less than optimum altitude. At first, more than half failed to explode, probably because their fuses may not have been adjusted appropriately. But the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) chose to broadcast that conclusion to the world on the evening news. Less than 48 hours later, properly fused bombs sank Coventry. It may have been coincidence of course. The Argentine airforce may have sorted out the problem themselves, but the timing seemed more than coincidental to those whose lives were on the line.
The fuse story was just one example from that war of incessant tension between media, dedicated to slaking public thirst to know everything that was going on in real time, while the fighting forces felt that news scoops back home were being paid for in the blood of those like Coventry’s crew. The press publicized naval movements at sea and troop movements ashore that had been depending on stealth to succeed with minimal loss of life. More died unnecessarily as a result. Some British officers threatened to sue the BBC for manslaughter. Some suggested that its Director General should be charged with treason. After the war, Argentine commanders admitted that they had got most of their best intelligence from the British media.
The debate continues today. On one side is the argument on principle for a free and full flow information in a democratic society. On the other, as the commander of the Battle Group observed later, the principle is less sacrosanct when you may find yourself swimming in the South Atlantic after your ship has been blown in half.
Which brings us back to the Ukraine War in 2022. I confess to irritation when safe, comfortable “talking head” commentators of varying credibility speculate on how Ukraine managed to get its missiles past the considerable air-defence capabilities of Moskva, or what tactics they are using with such success against columns of Russian tanks or what should have been overwhelming Russian airpower. I confess equal impatience at members of the general public who complain that they may be getting “fake news” about the war and consider it their right to satisfy idle curiosity about everything, immediately.
War is not a form of evening entertainment for people who have never heard a shot fired in anger, sitting safely and comfortably at home. Deception and disinformation are essential tools for a weaker force facing a stronger enemy. To those who ask “What can I do to help Ukraine?” I’d offer this suggestion – be skeptical about everything, and restrain your curiosity until the story can be told properly. In an era of information saturation it’s easy to insist on the right to know everything no matter what the cost, when that cost is not your own life or that of your friends.