Commander Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward Royal Navy

By naval custom, Wards are nicknamed ‘Sharkey’ and Nigel David Ward was no exception. He was the premier Sea Harrier fighter pilot of the 1982 campaign to liberate the Falkland islanders from Argentine occupation. Admiral Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord, said, “Without the Sea Harrier, there could have been no Task Force”.

His command of 801 Sea Harrier Squadron, embarked in the carrier Invincible, was the culmination of a career that included five years of flying the high-performance F4 Phantom jet off the large carrier Ark Royal, a tour in the MoD as the Sea Harrier ‘desk officer’ and command of the Sea Harrier Intensive Flying Trials Unit. With its recently introduced Blue Fox radar and carrying the highly effective American AIM9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the Sea Harrier’s noted manoeuvrability, flown by the well-trained and aggressive pilots of the Fleet Air Arm, made it a match for the faster fighters and fighter-bombers of the Argentine air force.

Ward’s gripping autobiographical account of the Falklands crisis, Sea Harrier Over The Falklands, tells of his important contributions while CO of the trials unit. The operating envelope of the Sea Harrier was largely unexplored and Ward was adamant that it should be the all-weather day and night fighter so badly needed by the Fleet Air Arm after the 1966 decision to run down fixed-wing aviation from the Royal Navy on cost grounds, irrespective of strategic necessity. Accordingly and with the support of the Captain and Commander (Air) of the carrier Invincible but opposed by the conventional test pilot community who believed that pilots would be overloaded, Ward initiated a successful programme of night flying without ‘paper authorisation’. He also arranged a series of ‘Top Gun’ aerial contests against the best of the US air force’s jets and pilots, Ward and his team demonstrating by winning most of the engagements the fighting capability of the Sea Harrier under modern combat conditions. He was awarded the AFC for this work.

Brim-full of confidence in their abilities, 801 Squadron pilots set off south but with considerable worries about Argentine numerical superiority of possibly ten to one over the 20 Sea Harriers and 29 pilots embarked in the carriers Hermes and Invincible. Intelligence was thin, but some of Ward’s pilots had flown in or against the aircraft types in the Argentine air force and were familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. The first air combat engagement would be decisive and critical to the success of the whole campaign.
Ward’s first mission was to defend against fighter attack the RAF Vulcan bomber that made the first of several ineffective attacks on Port Stanley airfield, a feat of airmanship, however, given the distance from Ascension Island and the need for multiple air refuellings.
The first air combat successes by 801 Squadron on May 1 vindicated Ward’s tactical training and his faith in the Blue Fox radar – downing two Mirage fighters and two Canberra bombers, another Mirage falling to 800 Squadron from Hermes. There were no Harrier losses. Meanwhile 800 Squadron executed their famous daylight attack on Port Stanley airfield, after which the BBC’s Brian Hanrahan, responsible for one of the most memorable journalistic moments of the campaign when he commented “I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back”.

The war continued under the most difficult conditions of weather, with Sea Harriers forming the first line of defence against Argentine attacks. After the amphibious landings in San Carlos bay an arduous period of flying combat air patrols (‘CAP’) required careful attention to fuel states, the two carriers having to remain outside the range of the Exocet missile carried by the Super Etendard fighter bomber, this combination having sunk the destroyer Sheffield. Reinforcements by sea increased the Sea Harrier force to a total of 28 deployed, but Ward’s squadron suffered a tragic loss when two aircraft in poor visibility at night collided. Altogether four were lost in accidents and two to ground fire. There were no losses of Harriers in the air-to-air combats which downed over 20 attackers.

It became a routine practice for CAP aircraft to drop a high-level 1000lb bomb on Argentine facilities at Port Stanley on the way out. Ward himself had three air-to-air kills including a C130 Hercules transport, persistently used to infiltrate stores and ammunition into Port Stanley at night.

His book is sub-titled ‘A Maverick at War’ and this self-judgement is certainly supported by his critical comments on the conduct of the air war by the Task Force commander, Rear-Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward. It was unfortunate that Ward, the navy’s supreme expert on the Sea Harrier, was in the Invincible while the flagship was Hermes where 800 Squadron lacked Ward’s guidance and lacked confidence in the Harrier’s navigation system and the Blue Fox radar. He points to numerous failures of judgement by the management, among which was his belief that the Sheffield need not have been lost if the two local CAP pairs had not been grossly misemployed and the frigate Ardent might have survived if the 800 Squadron CAP had patrolled at the low level used by 801 Squadron. He was particularly mad at the loss of Lieutenant Nick Taylor in a low-level attack over Goose Green in good visibility – why waste invaluable air defence assets on a ground attack of little purpose. His gloss to his pilots on the compendious and unrealistic Rules of Engagement was acerbic – “you will shoot down anything that moves provided it isn’t one of ours or a Red Cross airliner carrying nuns and school kids….”.

He was awarded the DSC for his gallantry and devotion to duty. After the Falklands affair, Ward was again employed in the MoD where he did his best to influence the choice of weapon-delivery system for the Royal Navy. As an aside, he poured scorn on the major new airfield built at huge expense in the Falklands; “a surprise offensive would secure the air base within hours, providing a superb platform for the Argentine air force to prevent any naval approach”.

Born in Medicine Hat, Alberta where his father was working on Merlin aero engines, he travelled as a child with his parents around the Far East, contracting in 1950 a near-fatal lung disease at RAF Mauripur near Karachi.

Having become ‘tired of fighting donkeys’ in the MoD, he left the Royal Navy in 1985 to set up his own company, Defence Analysts Ltd, which employed Special Forces expertise to defend oil tankers in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, saving many lives and several ships from destruction. But this did not bring in enough money, so Ward started to build a three-star hotel at Marmaris in Turkey. His bank foreclosed during the 1989 depression and he was left with a half-built hotel, large debts and a broken marriage.

He moved to St George’s in Grenada in 1994, having rescued an Englishwoman and her son from an unhappy marriage to a Turk, ‘employing the services of one of the most famous bandits in Turkey to protect our getaway. It was cloak and dagger stuff almost meriting a James Bond movie’. He subsequently made a living from graphic and architectural design, remaining a dedicated and often furious protagonist of naval air power.

He was four times married. He is survived by two sons.

Commander Nigel Ward DSC AFC, Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot and businessmen, was born on 23 September 1943. He died on 17 May 2024 aged 80.

May 2024

Source of information: Ward et al

Reported by: Rear Admiral Guy Liardet