Editors don’t buy books, they wait until the review copy comes along and exercise their rights. But I bought this one and recommend that members should do the same.
The title may be offputting for some. After all, most of us have been making shift and making do throughout our careers, and through all its history the Navy, with one or two periods of unleashed expansion, has had to do the same. Is the reader to be treated to unrealistic counsels of perfection?
No, it is much more complex than that. The title’s quotation is from John Buchan: it is the sea, not the business of deterrence and war, that ‘endures no makeshifts’, and it was primarily the sea’s effect on character that Buchan was writing about.
And it is character that comes out very strongly in Sir Henry’s text. The style is often anecdotal, wry, very funny; behind the stories are many Lessons Learned (he is a gunnery officer after all), most of all perhaps the value of determination, tenacity, aided on occasion by very quick thinking in crisis and the saving grace of humour. Of course compromise over essentials was always sternly resisted: there were outstanding successes, some of which are told here, some implicit between the lines.
The author does not flinch from the more emotional moments: Midshipman Leach learning of the death of his father in command of the Prince of Wales; Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach’s untimely loss of his much-loved wife Mary and the great support of his daughters before and since.
So the account is personal, but it is also highly professional; coming from such a man, how could it be otherwise? He strove always to be master of his craft, and there is nothing in the book more telling on this score than his ambition – fully realised – to fly every operational aircraft type in both the RN and RAF when Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet.
Sir Henry has resisted the temptation to give a blow-by-blow account of the Falklands campaign as seen from his position as First Sea Lord. Instead, his treatment is again episodical, and the light coming from new angles illuminates the scene as no straightforward story would have done.
This does however lead me to a concern about the shape of the book and the ground it covers. Deliberately, Sir Henry has not included anything about his time as Director of Naval Plans (1968-70) and almost nothing about his time as ACNS (Plans and Policy) (1972-74). His reticence he puts down to the fact that these jobs dealt with highly classified matters and discussion of what went on would breach security. Well, we see politicians publishing their memoirs frequently, and if they don’t discuss plans and policy I don’t know what, apart from their personal squabbles, they are discussing. Sir Henry was at the centre of naval affairs in two crucial periods: that after the shift to fully NATO-orientated ‘strategy’ in early 1968, and that which established the Navy’s current operational structure – particularly the carrier/amphibious/SSN/frigate balance – in the early ‘70s.
Those of us who served under Sir Henry in those periods, and know how much is owed to his judgment and foresight, may perhaps be forgiven for hoping that, like Chatfield, he has a second volume lurking on the plans-and-policy aspects of his career. His 1982 RUSI lecture, reproduced in the book, is very well as a distillation of 15 years’ thought and force-building in the NATO context, but there’s more, much more, that would be of value to historians and forward thinkers alike. The 30 year rule is after all not far away. Meantime, this is a super book. The proofreaders could have done better (Pond for Pound, Honeywell for Honnywill), but be blowed to that. Anyone who buys this one will treasure it.