Book Review: Her Majesty’s Top Gun:  And the Decline of the Royal Navy

14 December 2020 | (Last Updated 22 October 2021). In April of 1982 this reviewer was walking in the centre of a medium-size city, which had multiple military facilities surrounding the metropolis. The lighted electronic message board on the side of a building was scrolling the latest news. One line read as follows: ‘U.S. to side with Britain in Falklands dispute.’ Everyone in the know feared that the military forces, especially the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, of the United Kingdom were too thin, after years of defence cuts, to easily overpower the Argentine invaders of the distant British South Atlantic possessions known as the Falklands Islands. With the formal announcement of America’s backing one immediately felt better about the prospects of a positive outcome for the ‘Mother’ country.

Nigel David MacCartan-Ward, the future naval officer and Sea Harrier pilot extraordinaire, was born at Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada in 1943 to Johnny Ward, who was a Royal Air Force engine fitter, and his wife Margery Ward. Johnny had had been posted to Canada during the Second World War to assist in the training of pilots under the auspices of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. He was posted to No. 34 Service Flying Training School, which was located at what is now Medicine Hat Municipal Airport.  In 1944 Johnny was reposted to a base in the United Kingdom and the four Ward family members made safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean, which was at the time still a favourite hunting ground of ‘Kriegsmarine’ (Nazi Germany’s navy) submarines.

In his controversial 2020 book ‘Her Majesty’s Top Gun: and the Decline of the Royal Navy‘, Canadian-born author, retired Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward, Royal Navy, fires educated and quite justified broadsides at past and present British military establishments, weapons manufacturers, and politicians of both the liberal Labour and conservative Tory parties. He also levels some insightful criticism at programmes and weapons platforms developed by the U.S. Military. His is the voice of practical and experience.

Unfortunately, the truth often hurts. Thus, Sharkey Ward has his critics both within and without the military-industrial communities in the United Kingdom and United States. His conclusions, findings and recommendations related to past and present defence priorities and expenditures appear to be spot on. Commander Ward’s arguments are lucid and supported by indisputable facts and statistics contained within the volume.  

In the work Sharkey Ward also discusses his personal life and the death of his son, who was also a British Aerospace Sea Harrier and Harrier pilot. Royal Navy ‘Top Gun’ aviator and certified Air Warfare Instructor ‘Sharkey’ Ward was Senior Pilot of 892 Phantom Squadron, which operated supersonic McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom II fighter from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal during the Cold War. He subsequently introduced the Sea Harrier fighter, a vertical takeoff and landing turbofan-powered aircraft, to Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm service. He commanded the Intensive Flying Trials Squadron 700A, 899 Headquarters Squadron and afterward 801 Squadron, which operated Sea Harrier FR.1s.  

A British Royal Navy FRS Mk 1 Sea Harrier aircraft hovers over the flight deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Another Harrier is approaching in the background. 800 Naval Air Squadron Sea Harrier FRS1 is from HMS Illustrious in post-Falklands War low-visibility livery on 22 October 1984. U.S. Navy – US DefenseImagery photo VIRIN DN-SC-87-05770.

Prior to the Falklands War Sharkey Ward piloted Sea Harriers in simulated dogfights with McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles air superiority fighters and Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighters of the U.S. Air Force. He also trained in the United States with the U.S. Navy. The experienced gleaned in part from these friendly aerial combat competitions in part helped him to become an unmatched and supremely confident Sea Harrier pilot. 

Ward’s 801 Naval Air Squadron operated from HMS Invincible throughout the Falklands War. Being the ‘Senior Sea Harrier’ advisor to the Naval Command on all aspects of the fast jet air war, Sharkey Ward flew daylight and nocturnal missions, sometimes in abysmal weather conditions. Sharkey Ward achieved three definite air-to-air kills of Argentine military aircraft, and he was additionally credited with damaging a fourth. Furthermore, Ward either assisted with or witnessed eight further Sea Harrier kills.

HMS Invincible (R05) returns following the Falklands Conflict in 1982 with Sea King helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron and Sea Harrier FRS1 fighters of 800 Naval Air Squadron – Royal Navy photo.

Notably, Commander Ward may very well have, being the commander of 801 Naval Air Squadron and a fighter pilot piloting the superlative Sea Harrier FRS.1, saved the day for the British Falklands task force. As retired Royal Navy Admiral Sandy Woodward, Commander of the HMS Hermes aircraft carrier group (Task Group 317.8) during the Falklands War, stated the following: “If Sharkey Ward had not disobeyed orders, we could not have won the Falklands War.” Ward knew aerial warfare and how best to utilise the Sea Harrier offensively and defensively. The same cannot be said of some senior commanders within the Royal Navy task force and leadership of the Royal Air Force.

During the Falklands War Commander Ward was awarded the Air Force Cross for Services to Harrier Aviation and subsequently decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry. He was made a Freeman of the City of London and Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He also placed first at Greenwich Staff College.  Before retiring Sharkey Ward then served in the Ministry of Defence as the ‘Air Warfare and Air Weapons Adviser’ to both the Naval Staff and the First Sea Lord.

Her Majesty’s Top Gun: and the Decline of the Royal Navy is self-published through Mill City Press in Maitland, Florida. The publication contains 516 pages. Sharkey Ward previously authored the engrossing book Sea Harrier over the Falklands: A Maverick at War.


The reviewer, John T. Stemple, is a Life Member of Bomber Command Museum of Canada and he maintains a membership with the Royal British Legion.

Sources Cited and Suggested Readings

801 Naval Air Squadron

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP)

BCATP Station Medicine Hat

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Alberta

British Aerospace Sea Harrier

Hawker Hunter T8M – Fleet Air Arm Museum

Hawker Hunter

Her Majesty’s Death Ray: How The AIM-9L Sidewinder Vanquished The Argentine Air Force

History of the Falkland Islands

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

HMS Invincible (R05)


Kristian Ward Obituaries

Nazi Germany

Nigel David MacCartan-Ward

Operation Deny Flight

Sandy Woodward

Seaforces Online: Sea Harrier FRS.1 + FA.2

Ward, Sharkey. Sea Harrier over the Falklands. (Cassell Military Paperbacks). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 2007.