Daily Archives: 9 June, 2012

Another Aircraft Carrier U-turn

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class,...

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class, two of which are under construction for the Royal Navy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m several days late in reporting this one, but earlier in the week it emerged that the current governing coalition is planning to perform a u-turn and introduce both Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers into service. Previously, it had planned to mothball one. Both will enter service with the Royal Navy once completed, as was originally planned by the previous Labour Government.

The mothball option emerged in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which also opted to purchase conventional ‘cat and trap’ versions of the joint strike fighter rather than the vertical version -a decision that was also reversed earlier this year. Yet another defence u-turn raises questions about the coalitions judgement – whilst changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of if the situation demands it, that decision makers have got so many things wrong in the first place is worrying. If decisions about acquiring equipment appear to be unsound, how much confidence can we – or more importantly our servicemen – have about the decision making when it comes to commiting troops?

I have always been a firm believer that there is no point in having just one of anything in defence terms. If you only have one aircraft carrier, it can only be fully operational half of the time. At best. And if you feel that you can do without it 6 months of the year, do you really need it that other 6 months? The French have had all kinds of trouble with their carrier Charles de Gaulle, and whenever she’s in port, the French have no other carrier. The Falklands – and the Royal Navy’s recent operational tempo – shows that to have one ship effective at any one time, you need at least one, preferably two more in refit or working up. One suspects that the current era of no strike carriers was prompted by the RAF trying to prove that we do not need them at all. That philosophy has clearly proved to be unsound, with carrier-borne air cover proving to be effective – militarily and financially – over Libya.

According to Defence sources, the first Carrier – Queen Elizabeth – should be undergoing sea trials by 2017. Sections being constructed in shipyards around Britain are currently being assembled in Scotland. Both ships will be based in Portsmouth, and extensive work is going on in Pompey to configure jetties and supporting infrastructure to take them. Seeing them steam into Portsmouth for the first time is bound to be an impressive sight. They are perhaps overkill for out financial means nowadays, and probably bigger than we really need militarily, but on the flip side, it is difficult to overestimate what an impact a 60,000 ton flat top could project.

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Falklands 30 – The Battle in the Mountains #1

Position of Mount Challenger relative to other...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before 2 Para had finished fighting the Battle of Goose Green, Brigadier Julian Thompson had begun to move the rest of 3 Commando Brigade out of the San Carlos Beachhead. He was under pressure from the chain of command and politicians back in Britain, who wanted the Islands retaken quickly before losses became untenable or before international opinion turned.

After landing at San Carlos, the British Land Forces were going to have to confront and defeat the Argentine forces on East Falkland, and capture the objective – Stanley. Between San Carlos and Stanley was a range of hills and mountains, from Mount Kent and Mount Challenger in the West; to Two Sisters Ridge, Mount Harriet, Mount Longdon, Mount Tumbledown, Wireless Ridge and Sapper Hill.

With the loss of Chinook Heavy lift helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor, there were only two options for moving across East Falkland to the Mountains area – march, or move by sea. And as we have seen previously, movement by sea was relatively simple and kept troops fresh, but frought with danger. There were a limited amount of ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Commando Helicopter Force, but these were occupied moving heavy equipment.

As with Goose Green, it might be thought that because most of the Argentine troops were conscripts that the task of the attacking troops was simple. However, the Argentines had had plenty of time to get dug in on the mountains and to prepare positions. As one Para at Goose Green wistfully said, any conscript can dig in in a sangar and fire a .5inch Machine Gun. Evidence suggests that the Argentine conscripts were poorly treated by their superiors and were perhaps not in the best condition (see Martin Middlebrook’s ‘The Argentine Fight for the Falklands’), but they had no shortage of heavy weapons and were in range of supporting guns at Stanley. Normal military philosophy suggested that troops attacking prepared positions needed a superiority of 3 to 1. The British were slightly outnumbered, but time and political pressures forced them to attack regardless. Although the Argentines had garrisoned the Mountains strongly, they also had several Regiments – roughly equivalent to a British Battalion – around Stanley itself, and at Stanley airport – still fearing a British landing directly on Stanley itself.

The first actions in the battle for the Mountains came on 31 May, when the Marines Mountain and Artic Warfare Cadre fought a battle with an Argentine patrol at Top Malo House, and K Coy 42 Commando reached the summit of Mount Kent. 3 Para had secured Estancia House by 2 June, and on 4 June 45 Commando had yomped from Teal Inlet to the foot of Mount Kent, ready to reinforce either 42 Commando or 3 Para as necessary. What followed was a difficult battle, with the only option to attack and take each mountain range in turn, before leapfrogging onto the next, using each captured peak as a platform for another unit to come through and assault the next.

While 5 Infantry Brigade was establishing itseldf on the southern axis, 3 Commando Brigade was preparing to attack the first mountains in the north. 3 Para were alloted the objective of Mount Longdon, 45 Commando Two Sisters, and 42 Commando Mount Harriet. Brigade Headquarters was established around Teal Inlet. Some time was spent in reconnaisance patrols, and the disaster at Bluff Cove delayed 5 Infantry Brigade in preparing for its part of the advance. The Battle began on the night of 11 June.

3 Para had tabbed to the foot of Mount Longdon from San Carlos. The Paras had a battery of 6 105mm guns in support, as well as naval gunfire from HMS Avenger. Longdon and the adjoining Wireless Ridge were garrisoned by the Argentine 7th Infantry Regiment, and a stiff battle saw the Paras come up against heavy opposition in the form of Argentine bunkers well dug into the mountain, and anti-armour weapons were frequently used to dislodge these prepared positions. 18 Paras and an attached Royal Engineer had been killed in the battle. Sergeant Ian McKay was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross after he was killed commanding his platoon taking on a machine gun post. 3 Para were also awarded a DSO, two MC’s, 2 DCM’s and 3 MM’s for Longdon. The Paras spent the next two nights on Longdon and on the slopes approaching Wireless Ridge, being heavily shelled.

45 Commando, meanwhile, attacked Two Sisters. They had in support a battery of 105mm guns, and the Destroyer HMS Glamorgan with her two 4.5inch guns. Two Sisters was occupied the Argentine 4th Infantry Regiment, who were also on Mount Harriet. X Company approached from the East from Mount Kent, while Y and Z Company’s attacked from the left flank. Distracted by X Company’s frontal attack. Two Sisters was in British hands by dawn, and altough 45’s CO prepared to attack Mount Tumbledown, he was held back by Brigadier Thompson. The Royal Marines had lost three men, and a Sapper from the Royal Engineers. 45 Commando were awarded a DSO, 3 MC’s, a DCM and 4 MM’s for Two Sisters.

Mount Harriet was assaulted on the same night by 42 Commando. The Commandos had a battery of guns in support, as well as gunfire support from HMS Yarmouth. Their battle plan was similar to that of 45 Commando, in that one company launched a frontal diversionary feint. J Company moved up from Mount Challenger and  waited on Wall Mountain as a reserve and a diversion, while L and K Company’s ‘dog legged’ to the south and then attacked the objective from the rear. Harriet was taken by dawn, for the loss of only one Marine killed. 42 Commando received one DSO, an MC and 4 MM’s.

With the first line of Mountaisn secure, planning began for the second phase of attacks. Only Wireless Ridge, Mount Tumbledown, Mount William and Sapper Hill were between the British forces and Stanley.

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