Obituary: Captain Nicholas Barker
Wednesday 09 April 1997
He fought not one but three wars: against the Argentines; against what he called complacency, incompetence and misjudgement in high places in Britain; and against the planned scrapping of his own ship.
As captain of Endurance from 1980, Barker launched a relentless campaign against the decision of the then Defence Secretary, John Nott, to scrap Endurance with other vessels in the 1981 defence cuts. Barker jeopardised his own outstanding career by challenging senior admirals, officials, ministers and even Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, herself. He argued strenuously for retention of Britain's military presence in the Falklands and the Antarctic, emphasising its potential of immense mineral wealth. Furthermore, scrapping Endurance, he warned, would lead Argentina to believe that Britain no longer cared about the Falklands and Antarctic and would give the green light for Argentine aggression.
Barker combined high intelligence with an easy affability but steely determination in causes he believed to be right. As one of the youngest captains in the Royal Navy, he could reasonably have been expected to be promoted admiral in normal circumstances - but the South Atlantic in 1982 could in no way be regarded as normal circumstances. Barker's forthright views did not endear him to those in power, all the less as he was proved right by history.
Barker was, as he put it, "first in and last out" of the Falklands War. His war began long before anyone else's: he took the Endurance down to the South Atlantic in 1980 to undertake patrol duties. With great prescience and know-ledge of the region and close contact with Argentine naval officers, he accurately gauged the military junta's warlike intentions and repeatedly warned Whitehall - only for his warnings to fall on deaf ears until the fateful invasion itself, at dawn on 2 April 1982.
The Argentine fleet sailed for the Falklands on 1 April. Barker wrote in his diary that evening:
This is the worst day of my life. Why had the Ministry of Defence not listened to my warnings? Why hadn't the Government repeated the strategy of 1977 and sent a small deterrent force to the South Atlantic that day. It had worked then. Why not now?
London finally woke up and sent the famous Foreign Office message to the Governor of the Falkland Islands, Rex Hunt, that invasion was imminent, adding "You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly". Hunt's forewarnings, like Barker's, had been ignored in favour of faulty intelligence information and inaccurate misinterpretation of events by the British Embassy in Buenos Aires. In blunt naval language, Barker despaired of what he called "incompetent diplomats, bloody-minded mandarins and lying Argentines. The Ambassador [the late Anthony Williams] and Whitehall making 'tut tut' noises is not impressing the Argentines."
By contrast, Barker's performance, skill and seamanship in gale-lashed seas in a ship that was not easily manoeuvrable, did greatly impress his own crew, his colleagues on the Task Force, and even the enemy, whose ships off South Georgia greatly outnumbered his lightly armed Endurance, painted not battle grey, but bright red, "the Red Plum", as she was affectionately known.
In light-humoured contrast to his hazardous predicament, Barker described how he hugged the coastline to escape radar detection until the British Task Force arrived in the South Atlantic, pretending to be an iceberg as he played hide-and-seek with the Argentine warships. He later learned that at one point Endurance was targeted through its periscope by the Argentine submarine Santa Fe, whose captain had previously met and admired Captain Barker. The submarine never fired its torpedoes and was later put out of action by Endurance's helicopters.
Endurance played a vital role in providing intelligence to the Task Force and in the recapture of South Georgia on 26 April. The conflict itself was over by 14 June. The Endurance came home in triumph - it survived both the Argentines and the scrap heap. A campaign led by Lord Shackleton (whose father Ernest Shackleton had taken the original wooden ship Endurance to the Antarctic, and was buried in South Georgia) was successful in maintaining a Navy ship in the Antarctic, also called Endurance.
Barker regarded the conflict as avoidable, and the Franks Inquiry, published in January 1983, clearing the Thatcher Government of negligence, as a "whitewash". With continuing defence cuts, he believed that Britain had not learned from its mistakes. His contempt for what he called "arrogance and incompetence in the corridors of power" was matched by his pride in, and admiration for, the armed forces he served so well, his affection for Endurance and her crew, his regard for the Falkland Islanders for "their warmth and neighbourliness", and his fascination with the Antarctic.
Barker was born in Malta into a naval and military tradition. His father was a destroyer captain killed in action in 1940. One of his mother's ancestors led the cavalry in the Battle of Waterloo. As an orphan, he was brought up by his grandfather, also a naval captain. Barker joined the Royal Navy in 1951, serving in eight sea-going commands and holding various positions in the Ministry of Defence.
He retired from the Navy in 1988 and became immersed in a host of activities. He was awarded a Defence Fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, founded an international trading company, North European Marine Services, became Chairman of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fisherman, a Council Member of the British Maritime Foundation, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a freeman of the City of London and Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Tyne and Wear.
Dubbed "Captain Courageous" by a fellow Falklands commander, Barker fought a long battle against cancer with the same courage and fortitude he displayed in the South Atlantic. A few days ago, he telephoned me from hospital to talk of his plans for the future and for writing a biography, to follow his own very personal book of the Falklands war, published only a week before his death. It is called Beyond Endurance, a fitting epitaph for a brave man.
Nicholas John Barker, naval officer: born 19 May 1933; Captain, HMS Endurance 1980-82; CBE 1982; married 1957 Elizabeth Redman (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1989), 1989 Jennifer Cayley; died Newcastle-upon-Tyne 7 April 1997.
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