HENRY HARWOOD: HERO OF THE RIVER PLATE
Reviewed by: Andrew Burns
BOOK OF THE QUARTER
This issue’s Book of the Quarter is a thought-provoking biography. Henry Harwood was certainly the hero of the Battle of the River Plate, portrayed by Anthony Quayle on the silver screen, but he was also a complex character whose subsequent career at sea never quite recaptured the glory of the 1939 battle. We are fortunate to have the book reviewed by Rear Admiral Andrew Burns, recently appointed as Commander of the UK’s Maritime Forces, and so can rest assured that one of today’s ‘fighting admirals’ is taking seriously the lessons of his forebears, and that the Royal Navy will be better for it.
The Book of the Quarter series aims to highlight one book, be it a history, memoire, biography or strategy and pique members’ interest. By buying just one book of naval relevance every three months (and selection criteria does include price) members can quickly build up a private bookshelf of quality.
Book Reviews Editor
HERO OF THE RIVER PLATE
by Peter Hore
(Seaforth Publishing – £25.00)
ISBN 9781 5267 2529 5
Peter Hore has written a timely and hugely enjoyable biography of Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, Hero of the River Plate. As Admiral Sir Jock Slater states in his foreword, much has been written about the Battle of the River Plate, but no complete biography of Harwood has, until now, been published. The author has had access to a substantial archive of personal papers and photographs and these have supported a re-assessment of Harwood’s career, damaged during his time as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean. As a result, we discover that there is much more to the man than the battle for which he is famous and that his reputation has been given unduly negative treatment; this book restores the balance.
At an early stage it became clear that Harwood was destined for a long and successful career. From the point that Harwood commenced specialist professional training he committed himself to thinking deeply about strategy and tactics and formed lasting friendships with like-minded officers. He was intelligent and imaginative, and this combination gave him the ability to develop his thinking further in staff college appointments at a time when there was a need for independent thought. In his own words he ‘applied dash and offensive spirit’ to the enduring principles of modern warfare; such an approach prepared him well for the challenges that were to come later.
The book also provides a social commentary of naval life before the Second World War, an era when the degree to which time at sea was offset by sport and recreation allowed Harwood to frequently indulge his passion for shooting, one he shared with many of his fellow officers. The extent of this obsession is revealed in his diaries of the period when he was Staff Torpedo Officer to C-in-C South America embarked in HMS Southampton; ‘Our bag for the commission included 23,000 head of game’! More importantly, it was this early exposure to the region that allowed an opportunity to learn Spanish and to develop a knowledge of the operating environment, including the challenging waters around the River Plate.
The Royal Navy of the inter-war years was characterised by physical and mental demobilisation before a period of transition and evolution. Financial constraints resulted in fuel and ammunition restrictions which limited the maintenance of warfighting proficiency; that era’s HMS Queen Elizabeth had a speed limitation imposed despite being the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, an officer who preferred ‘parties and polo’ to preparing for war. As an increasingly senior officer he continued to develop his own leadership style, often through observing others. He recognised the difference between simply directing and more nuanced leadership and practised delegation routinely. Consequently, the philosophy of mission command for operations became instinctive and authentic. The onset of increasing tension in Europe demanded a resurgence of Royal Navy capability and investment, and Harwood played his part both as a Captain lecturing at the War College and as Commodore of the South America Division. As a formation commander, he demanded realistic and testing exercises that gave his units an edge, and they also provided him with the professional resilience that would survive the rigours of command in combat.
On 6 January 1939 the Graf Spee was commissioned, and the stage set for Harwood to take his place amongst the great naval commanders of the Second World War. The author provides a vivid account of the engagements and manoeuvres that led ultimately to the destruction of the pocket battleship at Montevideo after the Battle of the River Plate. The challenges of commanding a widely dispersed force and communicating intent with clarity are brought to life and Harwood applied considerable effort to establishing mutual understanding amongst his Commanding Officers. Consequently, there could be no doubt when he signalled, ‘My Object; Destruction’. This epitomised Harwood’s offensive spirit but, in addition, the diplomatic relationships he had established ashore were also useful sources of intelligence and co-operation. Harwood instinctively understood how decisive the application of both hard and soft power could be and through his position of leadership had made a personal investment in both. The comparisons with Nelson followed and Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham summed up the significance of the battle by writing, “I was feeling most strongly that an early success was a vital necessity for the Empire and our Service.” Churchill realised the value of a victory that “warmed the cockles of the Nation’s heart” in the dark days of 1939. Like Trafalgar, the battle was far more than a tactical victory, it was a vital confidence boost that resonated across the Royal Navy and in Whitehall.
Later in the war and after promotion to Assistant Chief of Naval Staff in the Admiralty, Harwood was appointed as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, a double promotion to satisfy Churchill’s demand for a fighting admiral: it was here that his reputation was seriously damaged. Harwood knew that success at sea would depend on adequate air cover whenever the fleet was operating within German dive bomber range. However, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder (Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Middle East) firmly believed in the theory that air superiority must be won before close support at sea or on land could be offered, and he would be the judge of where and when such support could best be employed. The requisite level of inter-service co-operation was never achieved, and this situation was exacerbated by the arrival of Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery who demanded prioritisation of air power in support of his land campaign and made little effort to understand the challenges facing Harwood. The failures of Operation Vigorous to relieve Malta after two days of continuous air attack on the convoy, and of the raid on Tobruk, further eroded Churchill’s confidence in Harwood. However, the author provides convincing mitigation, including political interference and the depleted state of the Mediterranean Fleet at the outset of Harwood’s appointment.
There are so many enduring lessons that can be drawn from this excellent book, not least Harwood’s timeless articulation of the need for the Royal Navy, “There is a limit beyond which the Navy could be reduced with safety. Should war unfortunately occur it must be remembered that the food supply of these islands will not last three weeks unless the fighting services acting in co-operation are able to insure its safe passage. The cost of these services is the insurance premium which the three fighting services ask…” All those who share this conviction should read Henry Harwood: Hero of the River Plate.