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100th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Leach

Sir Henry Leach pictured shortly after victory in the Falklands in 1982
18 November 2023
It is 100 years to the day that one of the key figures in the modern history of the Royal Navy was born.

Without the intervention of Sir Henry Conyers Leach on the early evening of March 31 1982, today’s Navy, indeed today’s nation, would be a very different.

It was Leach, as First Sea Lord, who dismissed naysayers in the Corridors of Power who were advising then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that Argentina was about to invade the Falklands, there was nothing Britain could do to stop it and, worse, nothing she might do to reverse it.

Henry Leach thought otherwise.

But he was no tubthumper, no warmonger. He knew what he was asking men to do, for he had been there himself.

Sir Henry was the son of one of the that magnificent band of brothers who served the Royal Navy so well between 1939 and 1945, men tempered in WW1 who rose to prominent positions a generation later and steered the Service through its hardest hours.

Among them, Captain John Leach, Commanding Officer of, in 1941, the brand-new battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Wounded in the action with the Bismarck, Leach snr returned to command the repaired flagship of Force Z, the task force sent to the Far East to deter Japanese aggression.

Not only did it not, HMS Prince of Wales ended up on the bottom of the South China Sea with the battle-cruiser Repulse.

Just two days before John and Henry Leach – an 18-year-old serving in the plotting room in Singapore – had enjoyed a swim, then a gin sling together. The son was upbeat, the father melancholy about his prospects.

After the sinking, the young Leach waited on the jetty in the naval base. Hundreds of men were saved, but not Captain John Leach.

So Henry Leach knew what the demise of a capital ship meant, the horrors wrought, the terrible death toll.

Two years later, as a sub lieutenant, he commanded A Turret and its 14in guns on Prince of Wales’ sister HMS Duke of York. In terrible conditions and the Polar night, those guns helped dispatch the battle-cruiser Scharnhorst to a watery grave off the North Cape.

A few days later, on Duke of York’s return to Scapa Flow, Leach and his crew posed on a very wet upper deck for the official photographer.

Despite the rather jolly picture which entered the archives, there was more relief aboard the battleship and above all weariness after an exacting battle in near total darkness and unforgiving seas.

There was, he recalled four decades later, “pride in achievement”, but “little exultation – the closing scenes were too grim for that and the remoteness of actions at sea precludes hate between sailors.”

That was the last ‘clash of big guns’ in European waters. 

What’s right for the Navy is right for Great Britain

Admiral Sir Henry Leach's credo

A career sailor, Leach would remain in the Navy into the Cold War, specialising as a gunnery officer, seeing action again in Korea, then the Malay Emergency.

He possessed traits in battle for which the Royal Navy is renowned: skill, calm resolve, patience, ruthlessness when required, humility.

And, despite his background in gunnery, he was a moderniser, realising the potential of new technologies and the missile age, advocating the end of the daily rum ration.

After a succession of commands from the late 50s through to the early 70s came a series of senior staff postings, including Commander-in-Chief Fleet in the Silver Jubilee year and just a couple of months after Mrs Thatcher came to power, the prize: First Sea Lord.

In post, he frequently clashed with Defence Secretary Francis Pym – a man he considered ‘weak’. When Pym was replaced by former Army officer John Nott, Sir Henry thought it would be “a change for the better. How wrong I was,” he lamented.

The Defence Review Nott oversaw in the summer of 1981 resulted in a White Paper entitled ‘The Way Forward’ which opened with the words “We cannot go on as we are,” before beginning to dismantle one third of the Royal Navy.

Brand-new carrier Invincible would be sold to the Australians, six large destroyers would be sold or paid off, a wave of Type 12 frigates would go, so too several Leanders, and the assault ships Intrepid and Fearless.

And there was no room in John Nott’s world for a small Antarctic patrol ship, HMS Endurance. With a £30m refit looming, the Red Plum had to face the axe.

Externally an imposing ramrod figure. Inwardly, he possessed great wit, charm and warmth, often quietly spoken, with a wonderful sense of humour. First and foremost, he was passionate about the Senior Service, its ships, its men, its women.

Sir Henry fought back against the White Paper – ferociously. He lobbied all who might listen. The Prime Minister and her deputy Willie Whitelaw were all for dismissing the admiral.

John Nott did not want a “naval martyr” on his hands and succeeded in saving the First Sea Lord’s job. He was even persuaded to save Intrepid and Fearless, but on the fate of Invincible he remained immovable.

And so we come to the cusp of Easter 1982 and alarming reports that the military junta in Buenos Aires was about to invade the Falklands.

After a day in Portsmouth visiting the ASWE naval research establishment, the admiral had returned to London to find a host of reports concerning the South Atlantic on his desk.

The reports, Sir Henry concluded, were unduly pessimistic. What the hell was the point in having a Navy if it was not used for this sort of thing?

He jumped into his staff car and was whisked down Whitehall to the Commons.

As one colleague observed: “His creed was simple: what’s right for the Navy is right for Great Britain.”

In full dress uniform the First Sea Lord cut an impressive figure as he strode into the premier’s office.

Britain could not prevent the Falklands from being invaded, but he could mobilise a task force to sail within 48 hours. It would take a huge national effort: Britain’s two carriers Hermes and Invincible, her assault ships Fearless and Intrepid, every single operational Sea Harrier, all of 3 Commando Brigade, the core of the surface fleet and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

It was an “operation involving considerable risk”, but a risk worth taking.

John Nott blanched. “Henry was a sailor in the best Nelsonian tradition, but he was not exactly a ‘cerebral man’.” Befitting his background, Nott wanted facts and figures, not bold assurances.

“Could we really capture the islands if they were invaded?” Mrs Thatcher buttonholed the admiral.

“Yes, we could – and in my judgment we should.”

“Why do say that?” the Prime Minister snapped back.

“Because if we do not in another few months we shall be living in a different country whose word counts for little.”

Mrs Thatcher nodded. She gave Sir Henry Leach the order to begin assembling his task force.

The rest, as they say, is history. Britain could – and did – liberate the Falklands. Invincible was saved. John Nott was removed from post a few months later… just days after Sir Henry retired on promotion to the Navy’s highest rank, Admiral of the Fleet.

He continued to serve in retirement: deputy Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, representing the Queen at many official functions and president of the Sea Cadets for a decade. He penned his memoirs and attended Falklands commemorations and events and naval ceremonies.

In 2004 his contribution to the history of the modern Navy was honoured when the new Naval Headquarters on Portsmouth’s Whale Island were built: The Sir Henry Leach Building. Dominating its foyer a large portrait of the legendary encounter between the admiral and the prime minister from 1982.

Sir Henry died at the age of 87 in April 2011.

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