Intellectual Thug: The Defence Of Denis Healey

With the British government having recently confirmed that Chagos islanders will not be allowed to return home until at least 2036, Forces...

Two years after the death of Denis Healey at the remarkable age of 98, Forces Network has taken a look at one of Britain's most formidable Defence Secretaries.

It comes after the British government confirmed last year that Chagos islanders will not be allowed to return home until at least 2036, with their expulsion authorised during Healey's time as head of the Ministry of Defence.

The decision resulted in the construction of a US military base at Diego Garcia, which to this day houses several thousand American military personnel and around 40-50 Royal Navy sailors

But it's only a small part of Major Denis Healey's legacy as Defence Secretary, with the results of many his decisions still felt to this day.

Military Career

Whilst some of Healey's decisions were to prove controversial during his time in the post, his service in the Second World War certainly wasn't.

After being awarded a double first from Oxford in his early twenties, he joined the Royal Artillery as a gunner, but quickly rose through the ranks.

He was swiftly promoted to second lieutenant and then major, later serving with the Royal Engineers and seeing action in North Africa, the Allied invasion of Sicily and the bloody Italian campaign, making him a true 'D-Day Dodger'.

The term was used, with a fair amount of ironic bitterness, by the British soldiers who didn't take part in the Normandy landings of 1944 - instead serving in Italy.

US soldiers Italy fighting 1944
US soldiers involved in fierce fighting in Central Italy, 1944

Healey, meanwhile, was the beach master for the British assault brigade at the Battle of Anzio, one of the campaign's important battles. He was made an MBE in 1945.

Speaking at a House of Lords discussion on his career last year, former Labour MP and House of Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd remembered how "intellectual thug" Healey's wartime service left him with a unique position of authority as Defence Secretary.

She recalled how on one occasion he was being "talked down to" by an Admiral who'd never seen wartime service - at which point he warned:

"Look here - if you go on talking to me in those terms, I'll crawl under this table and I'll chew your balls off!"

Following the war Healey joined the Labour Party, famously making a strongly left-wing speech at its 1945 conference whilst still in uniform, stating: "the upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent".

Moving Into Politics

He had to wait until 1952 to be elected to Parliament, however, after narrowly failing to win the Conservative-held seat of Pudsey and Otley, despite doubling the Labour vote there.

Healey was eventually to become an MP after winning a 1952 by-election in Leeds South East.

12 years later, he would be appointed Harold Wilson's Defence Secretary, after Labour's victory in the 1964 general election.

Also speaking at the Lords was another former Labour Defence Secretary, who served as NATO Secretary-General between 1999 and 2003. Lord Robertson said: 

"[Healey] played a major role in the political reconstruction of post-War Europe."

His trademark bushy eyebrows, creative turn of phrase and piercing wit endeared him to the public, though it also got him in trouble.

He was often quoted, for example, as saying an attack in the House of Commons by the mild-mannered Sir Geoffrey Howe was like being "savaged by a dead sheep" (although privately the two were to remain lifelong friends).

Geoffrey Howe
Geoffrey Howe was a victim of Healey's wit. Picture: Albert Sydney

On the other hand, he had to withdraw an accusation that Margaret Thatcher 'glorified in slaughter' in the Falklands War. He later claimed he had meant to say "conflict".

As Defence Secretary

Healey spent six years as Defence Secretary, from 1964-70. Responsible for 450,000 uniformed service personnel, and 406,000 civil servants around the globe, he oversaw a period of dramatic military change.

In the first year of his leadership, the present form of the MoD was established with the unification of the War Office, Admiralty, and Air Ministry.

Old War Office building, Whitehall
The former War Office building in Whitehall. Picture: Robert Cutts

To describe his time in the position as 'frugal', meanwhile, would be an understatement. Healey scrapped a number of expensive projects and wound up most of Britain's military role outside of Europe, diverting the savings to the domestic budget, whilst not affecting the commitment to NATO.

The Royal Navy was to bear the brunt of the cuts. Carriers HMS Centaur and the reconstructed HMS Victorious were scrapped in 1967, while HMS Hermes was downgraded to a commando carrier just before Labour's defeat in 1970.

Healey argued that to most ordinary sailors they were just "floating slums" and were "too vulnerable". Meanwhile, the proposed CVA-01 carrier replacements were also scrapped, with inter-service rivalries, their huge cost, and difficulties in construction, operation, and maintenance cited as the key reasons.

CVA-01 proposed aircraft carrier
The proposed CVA-01 aircraft carrier

Also cancelled was the fifth planned Polaris submarine. The boats were the first submarine-based UK nuclear weapons system and the predecessor to today's Trident programme.

Healey also announced, with Wilson, a few weeks after the devaluation of the pound, that the two large carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle would be scrapped in 1972, while British troops would be withdrawn in 1971 from major military bases in South East Asia, "East of Suez"; mainly in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the Persian Gulf and the Maldives.

After Conservative victory in the 1970 general election, however, new Prime Minister Edward Heath attempted to reverse this decision, and forces weren't fully withdrawn until 1976, at which point Labour were back in power. While HMS Eagle was scrapped as planned, Ark Royal was to survive until 1979.

HMS Ark Royal, 1976
HMS Ark Royal in 1976 - years after she was due to be scrapped

Aircraft weren't safe either. The production of the Hawker Siddeley P.1154 and HS 681 aircraft was cancelled as well as, more controversially, the production of the BAC TSR-2 and subsequent purchase of the F-111 in its place. 

Perhaps even more contentious, however, was the sale of arms to regimes including Iran, Libya, Chile, and apartheid South Africa.

The latter was sold nuclear-capable Buccaneer S.2 strike bombers, with a repeat order. Wilson, who had also supported the policy at first, later strongly opposed it, bringing the pair into serious conflict. Healey, for his part, later said he had made the wrong decision.


Lord Robertson, however, said Healey's overall record as Defence Secretary was "outstanding".

He quoted the late Admiral of the Fleet The Lord Hill-Norton, a former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Defence Staff, who said Denis was 'unquestionably the ablest Secretary of State since the War', and said that although "he was bloody rude sometimes"...

"He was serenely confident about himself and extremely courageous. He was a giant of a politician."

He went on: "As Defence Secretary he [Healey]… reshaped the country's defences completely… There’s little doubt that he managed to reshape the British forces in a way that was very difficult at that time… [like] the merging of the Air Ministry, the War Office and the Admiralty together.

"Of course there are controversies. They plague anybody involved in defence, because, by its very nature, it's a very controversial department. He was an absolutely superb Defence Secretary, and that’s why he was there so long, and unlike so many other Defence Secretaries, is remembered as being successful." 

Healey, meanwhile, became Shadow Defence Secretary in 1970 following a general election defeat - a post he served in for two years.

He failed twice in leadership bids, being comfortably beaten by James Callaghan in 1976 but only narrowly losing out to Michael Foot in 1980 in a shock result, after having won the first round of voting easily.

An MP for four decades, he died at the age of 98 and is regarded by some - especially in the Labour Party - as "the best Prime Minister we never had".

Cover image courtesy of the Dutch National Archives and Spaarnestad Photo.

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