Victoria Woodman of the University of Portsmouth discusses the treatment of Royal Navy sailors and officers families during the Falklands War of 1982. This paper was given at the 2010 International Oral History Association Conference in Prague, the Czech Republic.
On 2nd April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, overpowered the small division of British marines stationed there, and installed an Argentine military governor. On the following day Argentina then occupied the South Georgia Islands, part of the Falklands dependencies. The Falklands were 8,000 miles away; there was no air base available to the British within the islands range and the only Royal Navy ship in the area was the Antarctic survey vessel HMS Endurance, which was soon to be withdrawn. However, Britain began an operation to recover the islands.[i]
The historiography of the Falklands reveals that shortly after the conflict ended a mass of literature concerning the war appeared. A search of the secondary sources reveals that this literature predominantly falls into one of four themes. Interviews or personal accounts from members of the Task Force, who had their own heroic tale to tell. [ii] Journalistic accounts of the war, written by members of the press who accompanied the Task Force. [iii] Political interpretations, mostly on Prime Minister’s Margaret Thatcher’s role and how the conflict raised her popularity amongst the British electorate. One of the most frequent analyses appears to be on the media’s coverage of the war. [iv] There is, however, virtually no mention made of wives and families of the servicemen. Lucy Noakes in War and the British (1998) devotes a chapter to the Falklands, but it focuses on national identity and popular memory. Jean Carr’s Another Story: Women and the Falklands War (1984) is based on interviews with service families both during and immediately after the war. At the time Ms. Carr was a features writer with the Sunday Mirror; she made her contacts through friends. The journalistic, not historical approach is blatant; there are no references and the book maintains a highly selective and unbalanced account. Newspapers and television news reports did include features on wives and families, but these rarely allowed the women to air their own personal views. They were always pictured in their role of supportive wife, anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones. Their thoughts and feelings concerning the conflict, and how they coped with their partner’s absence, especially when the realisation that we were at war set in, have been ignored. This lack of literature pertaining to the wives and families views and experiences justifies and validates my choice of oral history methodology. This paper will, by using published sources, and oral history interviews place the wives experiences into the historiography of the war.
Oral history has played a vital role in recording the experiences of groups such as indigenous people, ethnic minorities, the working class and women. According to Emily Honig, oral history allowed women to speak for themselves, compose an identity and discover the meaning of their lives. [v] In a recent article, Joanna Bornat and Hanna Diamond have reviewed developments and debates in women’s history and oral history [vi] the article contained a quote from Sherna Berger Gluck that conveys an ongoing dilemma for women oral historians:
Gluck’s sentiments are, I’m sure, recognised by other practitioners of oral history. Early oral historians researching on women’s lives were predominantly engaged with revealing ‘hidden’ material about women, this became problematic with the absorption of a feminist approach which was to have influential consequences for the development and practice of oral history. The dialectical relationship between women as subjects and as participants in their own histories confronts and incites the practice of oral history. During the last thirty years the most significant change has been in the use of particular language; especially in the switch from ‘women’ to ‘gender’, and the use of terms such as ‘subjectivity’ and ‘identity’. There has also been an increased focus on the individual as the main instrument in explaining processes of change. And whilst there is still a focus on uncovering ‘hidden’ histories, on the oppressed through race, gender and class in history, the process of oral history methodology from the interview to analysis of the data is now a major preoccupation.[viii]
Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack, whilst advocating the usefulness of oral history in revealing women’s perspectives, have also revealed some cautions. Whilst discussing her life, a woman may combine two perspectives; one reflecting men’s dominant cultural position, the other constructed by the woman’s personal experiences. When the woman’s experience does not fit into the dominant perspective, she may unintentionally mute her own thoughts and feelings whilst describing her experiences to fit in with the culturally acceptable male version. [ix] This theory of ‘muting’ can also be applied to the concept of cultural circuit in popular memory theory. To mute women’s words infers that the male’s words are accepted in the formulation of popular or collective memory. Yet, it can be seen from Alistair Thomson’s research, that even men’s experiences at times are ‘muted’ if their versions of events do not fall into the official version. [x] Women’s experiences are, as seen from my initial historiography search, often left out of public accounts of construction of national identity through military action, and thereby war accounts, which are documented as predominately masculine. [xi] These theories had to be understood and considered for my research.
The Falklands War was a war in which gender divisions were strongly represented; men went to battle while women waited at home. The men were active, fighting for their country; the women were passive, anxiously waiting for news of their men. Most of the press coverage and parliamentary debate focused on three main areas: parallels with the Second World War, the heroism of the Task Force (predominantly male) and the anguish of those waiting (female). Fighting was interpreted as a male ‘rite of passage’. The Task Force was perceived in a grand historical narrative; linked to such national heroes as Admiral Nelson (to remind the public of Britain’s seafaring traditions). Throughout the nineteenth -century the British public held the navy in high esteem; this high regard was reflected in one of my interviews. Mrs. J claimed that at the beginning of the conflict, when her husband was out in uniform, people showed ‘reverence’ to him ‘touching his uniform and saying good luck mate’.[xii]
The general election of May 1979 was momentous; Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Although Thatcher had made progress in getting her economic policies accepted, by the end of 1981 she was still a Prime Minister on trial. However, events in April 1982 changed the public’s perception of her and the press displayed her qualities of decision making, moral strength and determination. It must be said that many of the images of Thatcher ignored or played down feminine traits and instead portrayed her in masculine terms. A crusade to restore Britain to greatness was apparent from the beginning of Thatcher’s term in office. In 1979, in her final election broadcast she declared ‘Somewhere ahead lays greatness for our country again’. [xiii] The Falklands War became the most blatant example of patriotic pride and a belief in ‘Great’ Britain during the 1980s. Thatcher’s popularity increased during this time; contemporary opinion polls show that people from all social classes and political groups were united in Thatcher’s stand Argentinean invasion. There is widespread agreement amongst both historians and politicians that the conflict could have been avoided. According to Peter Riddell, the government had failed to deter the Argentine invasion due to weaknesses in intelligence and the failure of ministers to confront parliament with what was happening. Matters relating to the Falklands were not discussed outside the Foreign Office between the start of 1981 and the actual invasion; economic and social matters were deemed more important. [xiv] Eric Hobsbawm maintained that the conflict could have been resolved by a show of force and negotiations, with no need to wage a war. He believes that the war was purely symbolic, a reaction to the British loss of empire and economic crisis. Hobsbawm though does claim that ‘it was politically absolutely impossible for ant British government not to do anything’ [xv]
The mixture of patriotism and politics was reflected in my interviews. Mrs E. Said ‘that when she first heard about the possible conflict over the Falklands, she had purely selfish thoughts, and was concerned about the effect it would have on her’. However, she added she was ‘very patriotic and felt Mrs. Thatcher was doing the right thing’, at the time she can remember saying ‘up the British’. [xvi] Another interviewee states that she ‘supported the war, she felt it had to be done’, though she ‘found it difficult to start with, as had never heard of the Falklands’. This interviewee also claimed being ‘very British, and felt that we had to defend what was ours and supported Mrs Thatcher every way on it’. [xvii] The not knowing where the Falkland Islands were appeared to be a common theme both in the media and in the interviews. Many newspaper articles written at the start of the conflict were accompanied by a map to show where the Falklands are situated. Mrs C claims that her initial reaction to the news that war had broken out was to ask, ‘where’s that then?’, she went on to say that she had ‘not until that point heard anything about the Falkland Islands, did not know where they were or fully understand the reasons behind the conflict’.[xviii]
From the onset of the Falklands War the public expected entertainment. The racial and xenophobic aspects of the war were clear from the stereotypical images of the enemy in most cartoons and in the abusive language used by much of the tabloid press. An explicit example of this is the Sun’s most infamous headline of the Falkland’s ‘Gotcha!’ This was used to describe the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. This headline typified and marked the high point of jingoism initiated by Fleet Street.[xix] The media expecting to obtain an unlimited supply of war stories were to be disappointed. The government were aware of the problems that unlimited press access to the war zone had caused the American’s in Vietnam. This with the lack of satellite systems and the difficulty in sending copy across 8,000 miles meant that the news was controlled or subject to delay.
As the ships of the Task Force gathered, little thought was given to facilities for the media. To many in the navy the idea of allowing journalists on their ships was abhorrent. It was initially decided to offer places to six journalists to accompany the Task Force; however the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and No. 10 were inundated with calls from editors demanding places for their reporters. Finally twenty-nine, all male reporters accompanied the task force. The MOD did not want to use the word ‘censorship; yet the rules were strict, forbidding any reporting of strengths, intentions, or weapon systems, even the weather could not be reported.[xx] Commenting on the problem of journalists aboard warships, Admiral Sir Jeremy Black, at the time Captain of HMS Invincible claimed that the problem lay in the services need to be team players whereas the journalists operated as individuals. The most revealing aspect of the naval approach came from Admiral Sandy Woodward. In his own account, based on his diaries, he writes: ‘On this day (26th April) I also ran into trouble from an unforeseen and unwitting enemy, the British Press. I should point out that I have never dealt with this phenomenon before, thus I was unsure how to handle them or what to tell them…’ [xxi]
The women interviewed were generally not critical of the press. Mrs. E ‘believed the media accurately portrayed events, but their timing should have been questioned’. She said ‘one particular shot of a man being dragged out of the water with his leg off’ stuck in her mind; she would ‘like to think his family had been informed beforehand, but believed they probably hadn’t’. [xxii] Another interviewee claims that ‘the media did the best they could. All the family watched the news, did not want to switch off radio or television as this is where they got information from’. [xxiii] Mrs. G states that ‘while her husband was away she had very little contact with him’. She ‘received almost all of her information on the progress of the war from the media, who always knew exactly what was going on’.[xxiv] One wife who said she ‘did believe that the media were very intrusive’ still ‘followed the news regularly as it was the only source of information on what was going on.’ [xxv] My interviews reveal that although some, including the wives were critical of some aspects in the reporting of the war, due to the lack of official information from the navy it was their only way of finding out what was going on.
When the Falklands crisis was unfolding, there was no ending to be reported, with an uncertain outcome the media reported on the purpose and moral worth of the Task Force. Images of the Queen and beliefs about the British way of family life were utilised daily. [xxvi] The media relied heavily on the human interest story; in the newspapers the saving and breaking of families was paralleled with the hope and dangers of the war. Pictures were published that exemplified each wish and fear. Pictures of wives anxiously waiting for news of their husbands and heart warming family reunions were used to ensure the public had insights into these hopes and fears. The relatives and friends of those serving on the Task Force had a vital part to play in the reporting of the home front. Although the viewing public was assumed to have a voracious appetite for Falklands news, and the Prime Minister insisted that the Falklands ‘were but a heartbeat away’, most British people were not directly involved. Many had not even heard of the islands, the fighting was invisible, thousands of miles away, even the Financial Times (7th April 1982) claimed that ‘no vital national interest in any material or strategic sense’ was at risk. But relatives and friends of those on the Task Force were deeply involved in the events; reports on their plight became a regular news item during the first week of the war. Their experiences allowed the nation to share a personal involvement in the distant and confusing campaign. These reports though have been criticised for not allowing the wives and families to ‘speak for themselves’. [xxvii]
One of the main assumptions structuring the coverage of the Task Force families was that those waiting were all women; the television news framework saw it as women who wait, while the men go to fight. The lives of married women at home are rarely newsworthy, in this instance they were only newsworthy because the men are absent and the men are making news. Journalists were given the rare opportunity to report from naval housing estates to present an area of life that the news usually neglects, however the journalists fell back on the old-fashioned stereotypes of women’s role and family life. The news reports present the conventional stereotypes; women are shown in relation to their men, and not at all as individuals. In the coverage of the Task Force wives, fiancées and mothers there are no details of their jobs, or any activity at all apart from waiting for their men. Typical introductions to interviews with women would be:
Karen Murphin’s only source of information was on news bulletins. She last saw her husband in November. Since then Kevin, who is a stoker and his shipmates were in the Mediterranean before going to the Falklands. [xxviii]
In one fairly long interview with a naval wife, the woman is not even named; instead the camera zooms in on her two year old son as she feeds him and the reporter begins:
Peter Goodfellow’s father is a sailor too. He was the engineering officer aboard the frigate HMS Antelope. Commander Goodfellow was injured. When the news was first broken to his wife, the Navy still had no extent of his injuries. She had to wait. [xxix]
These reports reveal the men’s jobs, the boy’s name, but nothing about the women. The stereotypical images are not consistent with contemporary surveys, or my interviews. [xxx] The women I’ve interviewed so far, except one, had paid jobs outside of the home; the jobs these women had ranged from psychiatric nurse, teacher, amusement company manager and civil servant. I do not of course wish to cast doubt on the genuine warmth, security and family solidarity that the media captured, or the depth of joy and relief felt in reunions with survivors after the war. The point is that the media’s image of wives and families is selective; it selected images of unity and family, concealing much of the true conflict and attitudes of both the families and the country. As well as being shown in relation to their men, the wives were portrayed not as active members of society, but as vessels of emotion. Reporters, both television and newspapers, seem uninterested in what the women did or thought, but only in what they felt. Furthermore, the journalists were reluctant to give the women a voice, preferring instead to turn to professionals and experts. There were pictures on both the television and newspapers of wives and children, but the captions and voiceovers were from authoritative or paternalistic figures. It seemed that wives and mothers could only contribute individual, emotional reactions and not objective or political views. For example a television report, supposedly on the families at a Gosport naval estate, shows film of the estate, women pushing children on swings, a family at home and a naval chaplain arriving to visit; yet the only person allowed to speak is the chaplain, who says, ‘It’s been marvellous to see the amount of support that these families have had…really remarkable, their resilience is superb’. [xxxi]
I don’t believe it’s enough to give these women ‘a voice’, as a historian some understanding as to why these women were not allowed to speak for themselves should be met. Perhaps the media thought the women would speak out against the conflict, thinking purely of themselves and their emotions. However this is not borne out in my interviews; the women were not submissive to their husbands, although they were to their husband’s career. This group of women were resilient, strong, independent women, not despairing women bemoaning their fate. Any grievances or dissent uttered was quickly superseded by words of support. One wife said ‘it was what her husband was trained for’. [xxxii] Mrs. C declared ‘that is what my husband is in the navy for, to defend our rights’ [xxxiii] The general consensus can be summed up by one wife’s words, ‘I was supportive of my husband, I knew what his job was when I met him’. [xxxiv]
I hope my paper, and my continuing research adds to a greater understanding, not of just the Falklands War, but of the experiences and coping strategies of contemporary military families. My research will add to the historiography of the war and oral history methodology. It should also be relevant to the navy of today in terms of recruitment and retention of personnel. After all the home front is of vital importance to serving personnel, which is seen in the memoirs written by those who sailed with the Task Force, letters, contact and hearing about the ‘normality’ of home, was what kept them going. [xxxv] I have, I hope, given those left at home a chance to have a ‘voice’.
i Miles Hudson and John Stainer, War and the Media, (Stroud; Sutton Publishers, 1997), 164.
ii For example, Max Arthur, Above All Courage: Personal Stories from the Falklands Crisis, (London: Faber and Faber, 1985).
iii For example, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands, (London: Michael Joseph, 1983).
iv For example, David. E. Morrison and Howard Tumber, Journalists at War: The Dynamics of News Reporting During
the Falklands Conflict, (London: Sage, 1988).
v Emily Honig, ‘Getting to the Source, Striking Lives: Oral History and the Politics of Memory’, Journal of Women’s
History, 9, 1997, 139-157; 139.
vi Joanna Bornat and Hanna Diamond, ‘Women’s History and Oral History: developments and debates’, Women’s
History Review, 16, 1, 2007; 19-39.
vii Susan H. Armitage and Sherna Berger Gluck, ‘Reflections on Women’s Oral History, and Exchange’, in Susan H.
Armitage with Patricia Heart and Karen Weatherman (eds.) Women’s Oral History, the ‘Frontiers’ reader, (London:
University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 83, quoted in Bornat and Diamond, ‘Women’s’, 20.
viii Bornat and Diamond, ‘Women’s’, 20.
ix Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack, ‘Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses’, in Robert Perks and
Alistair Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, (London: Routledge, 1998), 157-171; 157.
x Alistair Thomson, ‘The Anzac Legend: Exploring National Myth and Memory in Australia’, in R .Samuel and P.
Thompson, The Myths We Live By, (London: Routledge, 1990), 73-82; 77.
xi Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 79.
xii Interview Mrs. J, Southsea, 24/3/03 (wife of Lieutenant Commander)
xiii Peter Riddell, The Thatcher Government, (London: Blackwell, 1983), 9.
xiv Peter Riddell, ‘Cabinet and Parliament’, in Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seddon (eds.), The Thatcher Effect,
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 101-113; 105.
xv Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Falklands Fallout’, in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds.), The Politics of Thatcherism, (London;
Lawrence and Wishart, 1983), 257-270; 260.
xvi Interview Mrs. E, Gosport, 25/02/03 (wife of Warrant Officer).
xviiInterview Mrs C, Gosport, 23/02/03 (wife of Chief Petty Officer).
xviii Interview Mrs. C, Gosport, 18/03/03 (wife of Petty Officer).
xix Robert Harris, ‘Gotcha!’ The Media, the Government and the Falklands Crisis, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983),
xx Harris, ‘Gotcha!’ 26.
xxi Admiral Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days, (London: Collins, 1984), 109.
xxii Interview Mrs. E, Gosport, 25/2/03 (wife of Warrant Officer on HMS Bristol).
xxiii Interview Mrs. C, Gosport, 23/02/03 (wife of Chief Petty Officer).
xxivInterview Mrs. G, Southsea, 03/04/03 (wife of Royal Navy Officer).
xxv Interview Mrs. H, Southsea, 01/04/03 (wife of Royal Marine Chaplain).
xxvi John Taylor, ‘Heroes and Human Interest in the News’, in James Aulich (ed.), Framing the Falklands War:
Nationhood, Culture and Identity, (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1992).
xxvii Glasgow University Media Group, War and Peace News, (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985), 107.xxviii ITN News, 22.05, 05/05/82, quoted in Glasgow, War, 100.
xxix BBC 1, 18.00, 04/06/82.
xxx 1980 General Household Survey. This showed that conventional family units, couples living with children, made up
only 31% of households. Households where the woman is dependent on the man and stays at home to look after the
children are only 13%. Altogether, two-thirds of married women had paid jobs outside the home.
xxxi ITN News, 17.45, 06/05/82.
xxxii Interview Mrs G, 03/04/03 (wife of officer).
xxxiiiInterview Mrs C, 23/02/03.
xxxivInterview Mrs T, 18/02/03, Hayling Island (wife of petty officer).
xxxv For example, Woodward, One.