In a notebook from Iceland in this week’s magazine, Max Hastings pays tribute to the late Sir John Keegan with, among other things, a notable anecdote:
‘One day at the beginning of 1986, he rang to gossip. I told him an implausible announcement was due that night: I was becoming editor of the Daily Telegraph. John instantly said: ‘Can I be your defence correspondent?’ He was half joking, but I seized on the notion: he became one of the new regime’s first appointments. He knew nothing about journalism, but adapted brilliantly to its discipline and indiscipline.’
It’s true that Keegan had little journalistic experience when took the Telegraph job. But he had already filed memorable writing for The Spectator, albeit under a different name.
During the Falklands conflict, we had brilliant dispatches from Hastings himself alongside the task force (the picture above is Nicholas Garland’s cover drawing for his account of the final day). And next to them we had strikingly clear, calm and well-informed military analysis from someone called Patrick Desmond. This was Keegan, writing under a pseudonym because he was then working at Sandhurst and therefore an employee of the Ministry of Defence.
In To Convey Intelligence, his history of the modern Spectator, Simon Courtauld calls the Desmond pieces ‘perhaps the best contribution’ to the magazine during the Falklands conflict. As Keegan’s Telegraph obituary notes: ‘This work was not only authoritative; it also did much to counter calls in the early weeks from other writers for the operation to be abandoned.’
Being Keegan, it was also beautifully written and possessed of a deep historical perspective; worth quoting, if you will indulge me, at a bit of length. It is hard to think of anyone else who could end a piece on ‘The weapons that won’ – full of sharp detail on the performance and strategic effect of Exocet missiles, Harrier jump jets and nuclear-powered submarines – with a passage like this one:
‘What is not obscure, what indeed stands out glaringly from all operations, by land, sea and air, is the continuing importance of the great military virtues: courage, endurance, versatility, quickness of reaction. The bravery of the Argentine pilots has been recognised by all. They are all the more to be honoured for having displayed it in obsolescent aircraft operating at the extreme limit of their range. It has demanded everything of their pilots’ nerve to press home attacks with only a few minutes of fuel in their tanks and 400 miles of sea between them and their bases. Will we ever know how many Argentine pilots drowned in the South Atlantic wastes on their way back from San Carlos Water?
‘On land, old-fashioned courage and endurance have proved even more significant. Goose Green and Darwin, where a battalion of the Parachute Regiment triumphed over a garrison three times its size, were engagements reminiscent of nothing so much as the battles of the Indian Mutiny. The story of the fall of Port Stanley will probably reveal episodes of a similar character, while the Marines’ overland march on East Falkland recalls the famous trek of the Guides from Mardan to the centres of the Mutiny in 1857. And it is at this level – that of the ordinary soldier pitted against his like on the battlefield – that the junta miscalculations have become most apparent. It might have been forgiven for thinking that the size of the garrison sent to the islands – at 16,000 or 17,000 far stronger than any force the British could, or did, mount against it – was the ultimate guarantee of success. But the point is that the British infantrymen did not meet their like, either at Goose Green or Stanley. Conscripts with under a year’s training are simply not a match for regulars of the sort produced at Aldershot, Plymouth and Pirbright. As the British found time and again in the conquest of their empire, numbers count for almost nothing at all when there is a wide disparity of quality. In that sense, the battles of the Falklands really do resemble those of the British conquest of India, a resemblance heightened by the presence of the Gurkhas, the one group of Indians whom the British found their equal.’
(The Spectator, 19 June 1982)