Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Falklands War, Uncategorized

‘Sir, They’re Taking the Kids Indoors’ by Ken Wharton

One of the sad facts of the Northern Ireland peace process is the way in which the experiences of the thousands of British soldiers who served in one of Britain’s most complex wars have been swept under the carpet. Sadly, as with many peace processes, it seems that a by-product of moderating the hard-liners in the interests of a bright future, is that some uncomfortable truths about the past are conveniently overlooked.

Ken Wharton, however, has been ploughing something of a lone furrow when it comes to ensuring that the humble British Squaddie in Northern Ireland isn’t forgotten. This book remembers the years of 1973 and 1974. The title alludes to the manner in which the IRA had an uncanny knack of ensuring that nationalist families took their children off the streets before an impending terrorist attack. Patrolling British soldiers would be well aware that something was awry, by the absence of the usually ubiquitous children on the streets. ‘Sir, they’re taking the kids indoors’ was more often than not a signal that something unpleasant was about to happen.

Northern Ireland must have been the most difficult conflict imaginable for a soldier. Restricted by what were completely unrealistic rules of engagement – particularly having to play by all of the rules, when the paramilitaries definitely did not – can’t have been easy. And I have to say as well, I am in awe of the bravery of some of these ex-squaddies, putting their names to their experiences and views so publicly, especially when certain unsavoury elements might be looking.

I always learn something new from Kens books. From the month my month breakdownof incidents, I get the impression that it was not necessarily the big well-known incidents that caused such a heavy death toll in the Province, but the constant ‘drip-drip’ effect of ‘smaller’ incidents, almost on a daily basis throughout the troubles. Perhaps to many, Northern Ireland consisted of Bloody Sunday, Warrenpoint and Hunger Strikes, and nothing else in between. Also, its only from looking at the list of fatalities that you can see just what a prediliction some paramilitary groups had for violence that often had nothing to do with the Troubles. With many of the incidents that Ken writes about, you could interchange the sectartian elements – religions, groups or neighbourhoods – and they would be virtually identical.

Something more controversial, certainly in the current era, is the extent to which Irish-American ‘aid’ helped to finance the IRA. To what extent was this intentional? This is probably something for a diligent historian to work on in years to come with the advantage of hindsight and when the potential for embarassment does not cause such a barrier. But it’s surely more than a coincidence that many of the weapons used by the IRA in this period were American-made Armalites or Garands.

This is the fourth of Ken’s Northern Ireland books that I have reviewed, and I have enjoyed reading every one of them. There are some cracking stories here – the Republican neighbourhood dog that had its vocal cords taken out by a Paras SLR, and other real, whites of the eyes, front line experiences. In generations to come I think these books will be extremely useful and important.

‘Sir, they’re taking the Kids indoors’ is published by Helion

21 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – 5 Infantry Brigade and Sir Galahad

The abandoned hulk of RFA Sir Tristram in Fitzroy.

The abandoned hulk of RFA Sir Tristram in Fitzroy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

After the battle of Goose Green, 3 Commando Brigade began moving out of the San Carlos beachead area. After the loss of so many heavy lift helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor, the only options for the impending attack on Stanley were to march on foot, or leapfrog round the coast by ship.

 

The second major land forces unit to arrive on the Falklands, the Army’s 5 Infantry Brigade, had sailed south from the UK onboard the Cunard liner QE2. Also onboard was the incoming Land Forces commander, Royal Marine Major-General Jeremy Moore. Deemed to be too prestigious to risk going into San Carlos, the QE2 cross-shipped her human cargo to other ships in South Georgia. From there, they made the journey to San Carlos, replacing the Commandos and Paras who had struck out.

 

5 Infantry Brigade was the Army’s high-readiness, ‘go anywhere’ Brigade, with a contingency role for reinforcing NATO in Europe, but also a secondary role for what were termed ‘out of area’ operations. It was based upon the former 16 Parachute Brigade, which had been disbanded a few years previously. Originally comprised of 2 and 3 Para and 1/7 Gurkhas, 2 and 3 Para had been seconded to 3 Commando Brigade when the Falklands War had broken out. To replace them, the Army drafted in the 2nd Bn Scots Guards and the 1st Welsh Guards. The choice of the Guards Battalions is an interesting one. Both Battalions had recently finished a stretch of public duties in London – hardly ideal preparation for fighting in the South Atlantic. There are two feasible reasons for this. Firstly, many British Army units were either commited to NATO in Germany, or were in Britain as reinforcements for NATO. Northern Ireland also weighed heavily on operations commitments. Also, the Guards Regiments have always had an ability to ensure that they are involved in anything that is happening, and have strong links with ‘the establishment’. It is possible that well-connected figures lobbyed for their involvement. Although the units of 5 Brigade underwent a hurried training programme, it is interesting to consider whether any other options were available to the Army planners at the time. It is also conceivable that the Army believed that the war would be over by the time 5 Brigade arrived, and that they were destined for Garrison duty.

 

5 Infantry Brigade began landing at San Carlos on 31 May. As 3 Commando Brigade moved forwards to approach Stanley, Major-General Moore re-configured the units in his two Brigades. 2 Para joined 5 Brigade, leaving 3 Brigade with 42 and 45 Commandos and 3 Para. 3 Brigade were broadly alloted the northern sector the approach into Stanley, while 5 Brigade were allocated the southern route. 40 Commando remained in defence at San Carlos.

 

The Gurkhas soon replaced 2 Para at Goose Green, and patrolled into Lafonia. 2 Para had initially moved up to Fitzroy, after a clandestine phone call had discovered that there were no Argentines there. This move was not ordered by any higher commander, and was made by commandeering the sole remaining Chinook. Whilst a dashing maneourve, which showed the famous ‘airborne initiative’, it stretched the British Land Forces southern flank dangerously.

 

With 2 Para so far forward, and lacking mobility, Moore decided to risk transporting the rest of 5 Brigade round the coast up to Fitzroy in Landing ships. Some sources suggest that this was because they were not able to march across the Islands. The Scots Guards were transported by HMS Intrepid to Lively Island, and from there to Bluff Cove by Landing Craft. By this point 5 Brigade’s forward maintenance area was being established around Fitzroy. These runs into Fitzroy were meant to be made under cover of darkness only – there were no Rapier SAM defences at Fitzroy, nor any escort vessels to provide anti-air defences. Given the demands upon Destroyers and Frigates at the time this was probably unavoidable. Furthermore, ships around Fitzroy in daylight were easily under observation by the Argentines.

 

When it came to transporting the Welsh Guards forward, HMS Fearless left San Carlos on the night of 6 June – ironically, the 38th anniversary of the D-Day landings. With only two LCU’s available, only the Battalion Headquarters and No 2 Company were landed, at nearby Bluff Cove. The rest of the Battalion were taken back to the safety of San Carlos, to try again the next night. During the day of Monday 7 June, it was decided not to risk using the landing ships, and only to use the RFA LSL’s in the runs to Fitzroy. Clearly, the threat of being caught in daylight was being comprehended by at least somebody with the Task Force.

 

RFA Sir Tristram arrived at Fitzroy during the day on 7 June – she was only carrying ammunition – and Sir Galahad took onboard the remainder of the Welsh Guards. She was due to leave before dusk, but loading a Rapier Battery and a Field Hospital took longer than expected, and she did not leave until 5 hours after dusk. Apparently the Captain of the Sir Galahad requested a postponement until the following night, but his superiors ordered him to go anyway. Sailing around Lafonia, she arrived at Fitzroy on the morning of 8 June. Although Rapier Batteries had landed, it would take time to get them set up and working. It was recognised by at least some at Fitzroy that leaving hundreds of men onboard a defenceless ship in broad daylight was foolhardy – Major Ewen Southby-Tailyour has spoken very forthrightly about how he remonstrated with the Welsh Guards officers, who refused to land their men at Fitzroy,  as they had been ordered to land at Bluff Cove. Southby-Tailyor was senior to both company commanders, and gave them an order to disembark. They still refused. It was only a 5 mile march between the two landing sites. Was this an example of the Guards historical tendency to rigidly follow orders to the letter, as seen at Nijmegen Bridge in September 1944?

 

Predictably, the ships were spotted by Argentine observers, and a Skyhawk attack was launched from the mainland. 5 Skyhawks and 5 Daggers approached the Falklands. The Daggers attacked HMS Plymouth in Falkland Sound, slightly damaging her. The Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol over the Islands was vectored onto the Daggers, leaving Fitzroy defenceless. The Skyhawks pressed on to Fitzroy, three of them putting bombs into Sir Galahad, while two managed to bomb Sir Tristram. Fire ripped through both ships and were abandoned. 48 men were killed on Sir Galahad – five RFA crew, 32 Welsh Guards, and 11 other Army personnel. Hundreds were horrifically wounded, including Simon Weston, who would later become famous for his charity work.

 

Later in the day, four Skyhawks attacked and sunk on of HMS Fearless’s Landing Craft – Foxtrot Four – between Goose Green and Fitzroy. She was hit by a bomb and sank, with the loss of six of her crew. Although the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol shot down three of the offending Skyhawks, the Task Force had suffered its bloodiest day. Images of wounded soldiers being landed at Fitzroy and evacuated to Field Hospitals shocked the world. Ironically, the risks taken in rushing Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram to Fitzroy probably ended up delaying the end of the war by a day or two.

 

The Board of Inquiry into the loss of Sir Galahad and the damage to Sir Tristram found that the decision to send them to Fitzroy in daylight was correct, and that sending the Harrier CAP to the earlier Dagger threat was the correct one. Interestingly, the Board found that given the need to get the Battle for Stanley over with, risks were being taken – such as sending landing ships into vulnerable areas without adequate air cover. Given the demands of the weather on the ships of the Task Force, and the political pressure to finish the war, commanders were in a difficult position. But, with hindsight, much of the elements that contributed to the disaster were avoidable. 5 Infantry Brigade were not experienced in amphibious warfare. Elements of the Brigade were clearly not suited to fighting on the Falklands. One American writer has written about the Brigade’s units in less than complimentary terms, citing naval sources as sayingthat the Welsh Guards fared very badly compared to the Royal Marines. 5 Brigade did not have a naval liaison officer, nor did its commander or staff appear to listen to amphibious advice. No matter how you look upon it, there was no good reason for hundreds of men to be cooped up on a defencless ship, sitting ducks for air attack.

 

Chillingly, the losses suffered at Fitzroy suggest just how badly the Task Force could have been mauled had many of the Argentines bombs exploded upon hitting ships. If one of the landing ships had been hit in such a manner during the San Carlos Landings, things might have panned out quite differently.

 

After the end of the war Sir Galahad was towed out to sea and sunk as a war grave. Sir Tristram returned to the UK on a transporter, and was extensively repaired before returning to service.

 

 

 

 

13 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – Goose Green

The Battle of Goose Green, 28–29 May 1982

The Battle of Goose Green, 28–29 May 1982 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the apparent success of the landings at San Carlos, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade – Brigadier Julian Thompson – was under pressure to break out and fight the bulk of the Argentine land forces on East Falkland. This is a quandry often seen in amphibious operations – a desire on the one hand by politicians and higher commanders to win the war quickly, and a more cautious approach by the commander in the field on the other. But with a finite limit to operations – after which the task forces ships would fall apart – the war had to be won. And sooner rather than later.

Knowing that the Argentines had a significant garrison around the settlements of Darwin and Goose Green to the south-east of San Carlos, Thompson planned a raid to attack and captured the settlements. He would probably have preferred not to – early plans had intended for the area to be bypassed – but leaving the Goose Green garrison alone would have left his right flank open in the advance to Stanley. And also, he was under pressure to break out of San Carlos. While there were not enough troops to begin the march to Stanley- and with the loss of helicopter lift this march would take much longer anyway – an attack on Goose Green was feasible.

Thompson detailed 2 Para for the attack, as they were located on Sussex Mountains, nearest Goose Green from San Carlos. 2 Para, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel ‘H’ Jones, number three Rifle Companies, a Patrol Company, and a support company with mortars and anti-tank weapons. In support were three 105mm guns of the Royal Artillery, Scout helicopters for resupply and casualty evacuation, Sea Harriers on call for air bombardment, and naval gunfire support from the Frigate HMS Arrow. The Argentine settlement numbered over a thousands Army and Air Force personnel. The bulk comprised 12 Infantry Regiment and a company from the commando-trained 25 Infantry Regiment. The garrison was supported by six 20mm Rheinmetall cannons, two radar-laid Oerlikon guns and four 105mm howitzers. Pucaras at Goose Green airstrip were armed with Napalm munitions. Hence 2 Para faced a very stiff task – attacking a numerically superior enemy, who had time to dig into prepared positions, and had a superiority of heavy weapons. The terrain and geography also suited the defender – the narrow isthmus restricting room for maneouvre.

2 Para marched down to Camilla Creek House, just north of their start line. During the final planning of their attack the men were startled to be informed by the BBC World Service that they were about to attack Goose Green. The World Service, of course, was being listened to by the Argentines, who therefore knew that the attack was imminent. An angry Jones threatened to sue the BBC, Whitehall and the War Cabinet. Thus 2 Para had almost certainly lost the advantage of surprise.

At 0230 on 28 May 2 Para launched its attack, with the objective of using darkness to capture Goose Green ‘by Breakfast’. There followed an intense, bitter battle. 2 Para quickly came upon strong opposition, from Argentine troops dug in on Darwin Hill. Momentum seemed to be lost. At this point Jones took the initiative, leading the Adjutant and A Company’s second-in-command in a charge up a gully in which both men were killed. Soon after Jones assaulted an Argentine trench. He was hit twice. The trench was captured, but he died within minutes. The Scout helicopter sent to evacuate him was shot down by a Pucara.

Jones’s second-in-command, Major Chris Keeble, took over a battle at a critical phase. 2 Para were well short of their objective, and caught in daylight against strong opposition. It was almost midday before the attack regained impetus, with A Company clearing the east side of Darwin Hill, and B Company taking Boca House in the west. At one point during the battle for the airfield the Argentines fires anti-aircraft guns at the attacking Paras. But with momentum regained, the evening found 2 Para on the outskirts of Goose Green settlement. Thompson flew in Juliet Company of 42 Commando to Darwin to reinforce 2 Para. The Argentines, meanwhile, prepared to fly in a company from 6 Regiment to reinforce their Garrison.

However, the next day the Garrison commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Piaggi, surrendered his forces, after an appeal from Keeble to avoid further loss of life. The Paras were astounded when a thousand men laid down their arms. 17 British personnel had been killed and 64 wounded, while 50 Argentines were killed and 120 were wounded.

Goose Green was a notable victory for the Paras. It was reminiscent of some of ther Regiment’s proudest moments, in particular the battle to reach Arnhem Bridge in September 1944. Goose Green showed that experienced, well trained men – many of whom had experience of Northern Ireland – could upset the odds against a numerically superior enemy. On the flip side, Goose Green showed that even badly led, badly equipped and badly trained conscripts can still put up a stern fight when operating heavy weapons and sited in prepared positions.

H Jones was awarded a posthumous VC for his bravery at Goose Green. There have been two very different schools of thought about Jones’s actions at Goose Green. Whilst on the one hand he was showing supreme leadership by leading by example, on the other hand, was he being reckless? Did he deprive his Battalion of its commanding officer when they most needed him? Personally, I try and keep an open mind. I know it’s a cliche in military history circles, but those of us who were not there will find it very hard to understand.

10 Comments

Filed under Army, Falklands War, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – HMS Coventry

A starboard bow view of the British destroyer ...

After experiencing heavy air raids at San Carlos, and some very brave flying by Argentine pilots, the Task Force commanders devised a new tactic to try and give early warning of air raids, and also to shoot down offending aircraft before they got close to the vulnerable landing ships or the carriers out to sea.

HMS Coventry – a Type 42 Destroyer – and HMS Broadsword -a Type 22 Frigate – were paired up and stationed north of Pebble Island, ‘up threat’ as a radar picket and trap for Argentine aircraft heading for San Carlos. Coventry was armed with Sea Dart, a medium-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon. Broadsword had the new Sea Wolf system, more ideal for close range work. The idea was that Broadsword could defend Coventry, whilst Coventry’s long range radar and Sea Dart could pick off incoming threats. This was specifically suggested by the Commanding Officers of both ships. Of the three Type 42 Destroyers that had originally sailed with the Task Force, one had been sunk (Sheffield) and another had been badly damaged (Glasgow), both by air attack. The ‘Type 64′ combo took up position north of Pebble Island on 21 May.

Coventry had had an eventful – and rather succesful war – thus far. One of the ships on Exercise Spring Train before being sent south to the Falklands, she entered the Total Exclusion Zone on the 1st of May, taking up picket duties in advance of the Task Force. She alternated between acting as a radar picket and bombarding shore positions around Stanley. For these shore bombardments she was teamed up with HMS Broadsword, for extra defence. On 3 May Coventry’s Lynx was sent to attack the Argentine patrol ship Alfrez Sobral. The patrol boat was heavily damaged by the new Sea Skua missiles, and later boarded by the SBS. On 4 May – the day that HMS Sheffield was sunk – Coventry was to the north west of the task force, repairing her troublesome 909 Radar. Sheffield was in the south-western position that Coventry had occupied until that point when she was hit by an Exocet missile. On 9 May Coventry was sent closer to the Falklands in an attempt to lure out Argentine aircraft. Four Sea Dart missiles were fired – a Hercules transport escaped unharmed, one Puma Helicopter was destroyed and two A-4 Skyhawks may possibly have been shot down. Later on the same day Coventry directed two Sea Harriers to attack the spy ship Narwal.

Remaining off Pebble Island for several days, Coventry and Broadsword continued acting as a radar picket. Coventry directed numerous Sea Harrier patrols onto targets – this is a role performed by surface ships, escorts in particular, that is often overlooked. It is possible, in hindsight, that Coventry and Broadsword had been in the same position for too long, and it is clear that the Argentines were well aware that they were there and determined to do something about it.

25 May – Argentina’s national day – began in much the same hectic fashion. One Skyhawk was shot down after returning from a raid on San Carlos, and another Skyhawk was splashed, this time directly attacking Coventry and Broadsword. The second raid, however, had more luck. Of the six airfraft – in two waves of three – two returned to base before reaching the Falklands. Flying low and using the land mass of West Falkland as radar cover, Coventry was unable to pick up the Skyhawks on their radars. Broadsword DID pick them up, but called OFF a Sea Harrier patrol. Coventry’s radar – designed for operating in open sea – was struggling to pick up the aircraft against Peble Island’s land signature. Small arms fire diverted the first two Skyhawks towards Broadsword. Her Sea Wolf locked on, but unable to distinguish between the two targets, for all intents and purposes went to sleep. Defenceless, one of the Skyhawk’s bombs hit the sea, bounced up and passed through the flight deck, destroying the Lynx helicopter in the process.

The second wave pressed on soon after. Once again Coventry and Broadsword declined assistance from the Sea Harriers, confident that the threat could be dealt with. Coventry fired a single Sea Dart and missed. Broadsword locked on with her Sea Wolf, but at the last minute Coventry, carrying out evasive maneouvres, slewed right in front of Broadsword’s line of fire. The first Skyhawk pilot fired his cannon at the hangar, before releasing his bombs – three 550lb general bombs. All three struck, and exploded seconds later. The second Skyhawk failed to release its bombs.

A large hole was torn in the port side, and men were killed in the auxiliary machine space, the computer room and the dining room where a first aid party were mustered. The explosion in the computer room wrecked the operations room above. Fire spread through the ship, and water poured in through the gaping hole. Smoke and fire spread beyond the capabilities of damage control, particularly as the ops room – the nerve centre of the ship – had been taken out. No order to abandon ship was given, but it was obvious to all onboard that the Coventry was sinking. Quietly and efficiently, liferafts were deployed. Broadsword began picking up survivors, and helicopters began arriving from San Carlos water. Many men – including Captain Hart-Dyke – simply stepped off of the upturned hull into lifeboats. Twenty minutes after being hit, HMS Coventry sank – the fourth Royal Navy warship lost in the Falklands, and the third in four days since the landings at San Carlos. Coventry’s survivors were later returned home on the QE2. 22 men were killed, and one man died in 1983 of his injuries.

Although the loss of any warship is hard to take – and especially the loss of lives – Coventry had performed admirably, and had probably saved countless ships at San Carlos and in the Task Force from being attacked and sunk. Such is the lot of Royal Navy warships sometimes. I’ve always found it intriguing that Coventry was sunk in a manner almost identical to Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942. Different war, 40 years apart, but the same spirit.

The Board of Inquiry absolved Coventry’s crew of any blame. Coventry was noted to be well prepared for war, having spent much time training and 6 months serving with NATO standing forces in the North Sea in 1981, in addition to Exercise Spring Train. However, there were a few lingering mechanical difficulties, such as the 909 radar. The Board of Inquiry – and others – did find that the ships had a lack of close in weapons, beyond missile systems, and this was rectified with the fitting of Phalanx and Goalkeeper to many ships soon after the Falklands War. Coventry and Broadsword had been instructed not to call on Sea Harrier support unless absolutely necessary, as this might chase enemy aircraft away rather than destroy them. Both ships had worked well together. It was found, however, that Coventry was not sufficiently trained for inshore anti-air warfare work. This is not surprising, given that the ship was designed for open-water warfare against the Eastern Bloc in the North Atlantic.

22 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – HMS Antelope

Antelope's magazines exploding on 24 May 1982

If you had to pick five iconic images that came out of the 1982 Falklands War, the sinking of HMS Antelope in San Carlos Water.

HMS Antelope was a Type 21 ‘A’ Class Frigate. Ordered to fill a gap for a cheap, expendable patrol frigate, the Type 21’s were designed jointly by Yarrow and Vosper Thorneycroft, and hence they had ‘yacht’ like lines. Commissioned in 1975, she was the only ship in her class not to be fitted with Exocet missile launchers. Their performance and accomodation was reportedly good compared to other contemporary British warships.

Antelope only arrived in the Falklands theatre on 21 May 1982. After the loss of her sister ship HMS Ardent, she was positioned to perform air defence duty at the entrance of San Carlos Water from Falkland Sound. On 23 May she was attacked by four Argentine Skyhawks in two waves. The second aircraft managed to put a 1,000lb bomb into Antelopes starboard side, killing one crewman. The bomb did not explode and the Skyhawk was shot down by small arms fire from Antelope’s upper deck. The second wave of Skyhawks attacked soon after. One of the attacking aircraft was shot down by Antelope’s 2omm cannon, and crashed through the ships mainmast. Although the pilot was killed, one of his bombs pierced the ship without exploding.

Antelope quickly moved into more sheltered water, and took oboard two Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians from the  Royal Engineers – Warrant Officer Phillips and Staff Sergeant Prescott. Both unexploded bombs were in particularly dangerous situations – one was inacessible due to wreckage, and the other had been damaged. Neither would be easy to defuse. After attempting to remove this bombs fuse three times remotely, the EOD team placed a small explosive charge on the fuse. This charge ignited the bomb, killing Prescott instantly and seriously wounding Phillips. The ship was torn open. With major fires spreading and the water main fractured, Commander Nick Tobin gave the order to abandon ship.

Five minutes after Tobin left his ship, the missile magazine ignited, illuminating the night sky in San Carlos, and providing some of the most memorable war footage of the late twentieth century. The abandoned Antelope burned throughout the night and into the next day, her back broken, she slipped beneath the waves the next day on 24 May 2012.

As harsh as it sounds, both HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope were ‘sacrificial lambs’ in San Carlos. The Royal Navy and the Task Force could probably take the loss of two general purpose frigates – it might have found the loss of one of the landing ships, or even one of the Type 22 Frigates harder to take. Although the Type 21 Frigates were carrying obsolescent missile systems – such as Sea Cat – and were placed in an exposed role, they performed admirably in a war for which they were not entirely suited.

The interesting this is, the MOD always convenes a Board of Inquiry whenever a Royal Navy ship is sunk or badly damaged. And in the case of HMS Antelope, the report of the Board of Inquiry is actually available to read online here, albeit heavily redacted. The Board found that HMS Antelope and her crew had only passsed Operational Sea Training the year before with a ‘satisfactory’ pass, and that her training had been truncated – in particular regarding anti-air warfare. For this reason she had not been considered a first choice to deploy to the Falklands, but was sent south due to the gravity of the situation. She was sent into San Carlos straight after arriving in the theatre, and hence it was the first action that any of here crew had experienced.

In a sense, Antelope and her crew were completely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for whatever reason were unprepared for what was facing them, with obsolescent weapons. But then again, any whether prepared or not any Royal Navy warship is liable to find itself in harms way. I think its particularly striking that HMS Antelope was sunk in a very similar manner to ships such as Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942 – fighting bravely, but overwhelmed by a swarm of enemy aircraft.

10 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

11 Comments

Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Falklands 30 – Bomb Alley

HMS Ardent

HMS Ardent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dawn saw 3 Commando Brigade – three Royal Marine Commandos, reinforced by two Para Battalions, and with attached units, ashore and dug in on beaches around San Carlos Water. Apart from the small band of troops at Fanning Head, the landings had been unopposed by Argentine land forces. Given the scarcity of Argentine troops compared to the geography of the Falklands, Menendex had decided that he had to first and foremost guard the primary objective – Port Stanley. He assumed that the British commanders would land in Stanley, in an American style ‘front door’ attack. San Carlos hardly featured in Argentine planning,  indeed, they had assumed that the British would not land there.

Given the lack of land and sea opposition, the only opposition that would meet the amphibious group in San Carlos water would be Argentine air forcers. The first aircraft to attack the San Carlos landings were actually based in the Falklands. Pucaras from Goose Green took off while HMS Ardent was shelling their airstrip. One of them was shot down by an SAS patrol with a Stinger hand-held anti-aircraft missile near Sussex Mountains. A single Aermacci was sent from Stanley to reconnoitre the reported landings. After attacking HMS Argonaut with rockets, the Aermacci escaped a hail of fire from sea and land. Thereafter confirmation of the landings reached the Argentine command, and long-range attacks were ordered from the mainland.

First on the scene were eight Daggers (Israeli copies of the Mirage). They hit Broadsword and Antrim, but nobody was killed. Antrim in particular had an unexploded bomb very close to her Sea Slug magazine, and had to move in to San Carlos water whilst it was defused. Shortly after the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol shot down one of two Pucaras that had attacked a naval gunfire officer directing fire from HMS Ardent onto the airfield at Goose Green.

At 1pm eight Skyhawks were due to attack. Only two arrived, after the rest either suffered refuelling problems or wasted their bombs on an abandoned wreck in Falkland Sound. The remaining aircraft just missed Ardent, and evaded Sea Harriers directed onto them by Brilliant. Immediately the Sea Harriers noticed another wave of Skyhawks appearing over West Falkland. Two of the Skyhawks were shot down. At 2.30pm another six Skyhawks attacked, this time almost sinking Argonaut. The two bombs that hit her failed to explode, but killed two men in her Sea Cat Magazine.

The next wave consisted of twelve Daggers. of the first group of six, two pilots aborted. As the remaining four approached Brilliant vectored in the Sea Harrier CAP, who shot down one of the Daggers. The three surviving aircraft however pressed on and attacked Ardent in Grantham Sound. Her Lynx helicopter and Sea Cat system were destroyed, killing a number of men. Defenceless apart from small arms fire, she headed for the protection of San Carlos Water. However before she reached sanctuary six more Daggers arrived on the scene. The first three aircraft caused light damage and casualties to Brilliant, but the second wave of three aircraft were all shot down by Sea Harriers before reaching San Carlos.

The last attacks of the day occured some half an hour later. Two flights of Skyhawks attacked Ardent, causing extensive damage. On fire and flooding, and with 22 men killed, Commander Alan West gave the order to abandon ship. HMS Yarmouth took off her survivors, and Ardent finally sank the following evening. Two of the Skyhawks were shot down by Sea Harriers. The third was damaged, and unable to land at Stanley, ejected.

Thus ended the dramatic air attacks on D-Day. One suspects that the task force commanders would have probably accepted the loss of one light frigate, in return for the safety of the landings. The Argentine pilots were undoubtedly incredibly brave, in pressing home their attacks over such a long distance and over difficult target terrain, but history has suggested that if they had concentrated on the vital landing ships rather than the warship escorts, the Falklands War may have run very differently. From a morale point of view alone, the loss of a ship like Canberra might have been politically tricky. And, it has to be said, if their bombs had been fused correctly, the Royal Navy might have lost a lot more ships at San Carlos than it did.

Martin Middlebrook’s ‘Argentine Fight for the Falklands’ makes much of the Argentines having a helicopter-ready reaction force waiting around Stanley to take off an oppose any landings. For whatever reason, this did not happen at San Carlos. Certainly, even a small-scale raid might have given the Commando Brigade something to think about. But given that the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol was ever-present, and had shot up a number of helicopters around Mount Kent earlier in the day, the Argentines might have thought better of it. With the absence of any opposition on land, the land forces were able to secure a bridgehead for expansion.

Hence, after the Argentine Navy had scurried back to port after the sinking of the Belgrano, the only serious opposition to a British landing on the Falklands came from the Argentine air forces. Despite losing one ship sunk and several others damaged, the landing force had survived a crucial first 24 hours during which they had landed a 5 Battalion size Brigade, plus supporting elements – a significant achievement. The Battle for San Carlos was still far from over, however.

5 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – The San Carlos Landings

 Three landing craft from HMS FEARLESS, contain...

In the case of the Falklands War, the British Task Force was attempting to dislodge an uninvited invader. In order to do so, the Argentine sea and air forces had to be worn down to a point at which British amphibious forces could land on the islands, and then defeat the Argentine land forces in battle.

Ordinarily, amphibious operations would only be attempted once a number of criteria were achieved. Firstly, air and sea superiority would have to be achieved, in order for friendly air and naval craft to protect the landing ships during their most vulnerable phase. Secondly, western military philosophy in 1982 suggested that offensive operations such as amphibious landings should not be undertaken unless the attacked had at least a numerical superiority of 3:1 over the defender.

In May 1982, the British task force had largely forced the Argentine fleet back into port after the sinking of the Belgrano, thus solving one potential headache. And although the task force had given a good account of itself in dealing with air attack – the Sea Harriers in particular proving to be more than a match for Argentine fighters – the British had not worn down enough of the Argentine air inventory to claim air superiority. The Falklands were within range of fast jets flying from the Argentine mainland. In addition, the task force only possessed a reinforced Brigade, of three Royal Marine Commandos and two Parachute Battalions. The Argentines on the Falklands, meanwhile, numbered Divisional strength – albeit comprised mostly of conscripts – and had had time to dig in.

The task force, however, was under considerable pressure to effect a landing on the Falklands. Any operation aimed at re-taking the Islands would, ultimately, require an amphibious landing. If international opinion turned against Britain and forced a ceasefire, then the proverb ‘possesion is nine tenths of the law’ might come into play. Hence, the politicians in London wanted a landing as soon as possible. Although the main Battlegroup of the task force had steamed into the waters around the Falklands earlier in May, the landing force had taken some time to assemble – in particular, the landing ship HMS Intrepid had been brought out of mothballs in Portsmouth Dockyard, and was the last piece of the jigsaw. As soon as she arrived, the landing could take place. Sandy Woodward was also conscious of the oncoming southern winter, which would add to the wear and tear on the task force – there was a limit to how long the ships could stay at sea fighting, and getting the war over with as soon as possible was a priority.

San Carlos, an inlet on the west coast of East Falkland, had been reconnoitred by Special Forces for weeks prior to the landings. It was accessed via the northern entrance of Falkland sound. It was around 60 miles from the capital Port Stanley, and considered ideal for a landing. It had direct access from the South Atlantic, and was in a sheltered water. There were plenty of landing beaches, and hills on the outskirts for the landing forces to dig in to in the event of a counter-attack. And crucially, it was believed that the Argentines were expecting a landing near Port Stanley. Heavily influenced by the American, direct strategy of attack, the Argentine’s expected the Marines and Paras to land on the beach outside of Stanley and leg it up Stanley High Street. But Stanley was heavily defended, and was garrisoned by thousands of Argentines. San Carlos, by contrast, had very few. In a classic example of Liddel-Hart‘s indirect approach, San Carlos was chosen as it would allow the land forces to gain a foothold and build up, before striking east.

Interestingly, it was not thought possible for any amphibious landing to succeed at San Carlos – according to to British pre-war plans, the US armed forces or the Argentines. Yet necessity virtually forced the British planners to choose San Carlos by default, after all other possibilities had been discounted.

Given that the landings were likely to come under air attack, air-defence was a key consideration. Woodward detached the two Sea Wolf Type 22 Frigates Broadsword and Brilliant, the Sea Dart armed Type 42 Destroyer HMS Coventry, and a force of Frigates and Destroyers to provide naval gunfire support. The landings would be led by the Landing Ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, with their Landing Craft.

Intelligence suggested that there were very few Argentine troops in the area, which would give the British landing forces time to dig in and build up in preparation for an assault on Stanley. Despite this, there was naturally a sense of trepidation among the Marines and Paras preparing to land on D-Day. Would the Argentines subscribe to Rommel’s thoughts on amphibious landings, and attempt to throw the landings back into the sea in the first 24 hours?

11 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized

War Surgery 1914-18 edited by Thomas Scotland and Steven Hays

How many military historians – people for whom writing about death and injury is part of their vocation – actually have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of battlefield medicine? Nope, me neither. And for somebody who has been specialising in war casualties, that is something I really should remedy.

Therefore I was intrigued to receive this book looking at war surgery in the First World War. It is actually edited by a pair of medical professionals who also have an interest in military history, which for me is crucial. Medicine is such a specialist field, that to be honest I think only medical professionals can really do it justice. But this isn’t just a scientific, geeky look at things that the layman would never understand. It is structured very sensibly, beginning with a basic introduction to the First World War and the Western Front, and also to the history of battlefield medicine.

A very interesting chapter looks at the manner in which wounded soldiers came into contact with medical help – namely, the evacuation chain. Wounded soldiers were treated immediately by their Regimental Medical Officer, aided by a team of stretcher bearers. Men were then taken to a Field Ambulance, usually by ambulance wagons and cars. Lightly wounded might be sent to an advanced dressing station to be patched up and sent back. More seriously wounded would be passed on to a Casualty Clearing Station by motor convoy. From there the wounded would be despatched to a stationary base hospital, usually in French coastal towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Le Havre of Boulogne. Men who did not respond to treatment might be shipped back to England for further care. With much of the war being fought in a stationary, almost siege-like manner, evacuation trains could be implemented, even incorporating river transport.

Obviously, many wounded were in shock, and in need of stabilising and resucitation. And with thousands of men requiring treatment almost on a daily basis, it was an ideal proving ground for medical officers to establish best practice. Anaesthetic had been discovered and pioneered in the later years of the nineteenth century, and with many men requiring operations, anaesthesia was also a key consideration in the treatment of many.

Something I had not really though of is the varying pathology of warfare. Men wounded on the Western Front – in cold, wet and muddy conditions – were very vulnerable to infections, and the heavily fertile Flanders mud was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And with a large proportion of open wounds, the early onset of infection was a serious problem. By contrast, men serving in warmer climes were at threat of other illnesses, notably Dysentery in Gallipoli and Malaria in Mesopotamia. As in previous centuries, a large proportion of deaths were to illness rather than wounds received in action.

As with Anaesthesia, X-rays had been pioneered relatively shortly before 1914. Gradually X-ray facilities were established at base hospitals, and a few locations further forward in the medical chain. X-ray machines were relatively large, unwieldy and expensive, and being so far back behind the lines it took time for men to reach them. Another consideration was the quality of imaging, and the ability of medical officers to interpret them and consider an appropriate course of treatment.

With many men suffering broken bones – in particular due to gunshot wounds – orthopaedic surgery was important. a large proportion of broken bones were suffered in the form of fractured femurs. As a major bone, a frature of the femur could be catastrophic, and poorly healed might cripple a man for life. The newly-invented Thomas splint helped medical officers on the front line to immobilise a man quickly, and radically improve their chances of recovery. A great example of how war prompted a remarkable medical innovation.

Throughout military history abdominal wounds had often been regarded as particularly troublesome, as to a lesser extent had penetrative chest wounds. Any wounds in these areas might threaten vital organs, and hence chances of recovery were often very low. Performing delicate operations on vital organs were particularly trying, and not something that could be performed easily in makeshift facilities. Also, the risk of infection was ever-present.

Something I had not ever thought of was the development of plastic surgery during the First World War. As with any way, men suffered horrific scars. I had always thought that plastic surgery was first developed during the Second World War with burnt aircrew, but some of the images of Great War Soldiers having their faces gradually rebuilt with flaps and the like are staggering. The Great War was possibly the first war in which cosmetic injuries were taken seriously.

Something else that really impressed me is the manner in which the medical services expanded to take on what was an unbelievable burden. The Royal Army Medical Corps was tiny in 1914, as was the British Army as a whole. With each Regimental-level unit needing an MO, and countless other medical units needing staffing, where did all these extra doctors come from? It was a considerable balancing act to make sure that there were adequate doctors at the front, but that there were also adequate doctors at home in Britain too.

I’ve got the utmost respect for doctors who serve on the front line. They deal with some of the most traumatic injuries, in trying circumstances and with scant resources. When faced with overwhelming casualties they have to take on an unbelievably tragic method of triage – which casualties have the best chance of success with the resources available? Those deemed unlikely to survive are left to their fate.

This is a brilliant book. Considering that the editors and contributors are medical professionals, it reads incredibly well as a history book – much more readable than many a military history text! I recommend it wholeheartedly to any historian of the Great War who wishes to develop a broader understanding of battlefield medicine. It has certainly helped me to broaden mine, and I must confess, I now think that researching casualties of war without looking at surgery in war is simply inadequate.

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

11 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Falklands 30 – Pebble Island and Mikado: Special Forces in the Falklands

One intriguing element of the Falklands War is the use of Special Forces during the conflict. In some cases the SAS – and SBS – punched well above their weight. In other cases, they were misused and suffered significant losses. Due to their very nature, much of the story of the special forces in the Falklands is yet to – indeed may never – be told.

The SAS in particular was experiencing a high profile in 1982, shortly after the Iranian Embassy. Many of the men in the Regiment in 1982 had served in places such as Aden, Borneo and Northern Ireland. The SAS were among the first units into action, on South Georgia. On 21 April a troop was landed on Fortuna Glacier on the island, but had to be exfiltrated due to the blizzard conditions. Two Wessex Helicopters crashed attempting to lift them out. The third, from HMS Antrim, managed to take off, heavily overladed with SAS men and the crews of the other two crashed helicopters.

Although the Argentines had sunk HMS Sheffield with an Super Etendard-launched Exrocet misseile, it was knocwn that tchey possessed at least several more. Whilst EC arms embargos prevented Argentine procuring any ore from France, and secret service agents were outbidding the Argentines on the black market, the attention of military planners turned to neutralising the threat posed by the Etendard/Exocet combination. To lose one Destroyer was bad enough; but to lose an Aircraft Carrier might have meant the end of the war.

Operation Mikado was a plan to use the SAS to attack the Argentine’s Super Etendard bases at Tierra Fuego. On 17 May 1982 a Sea King of 846 Naval Air Squadron took off from HMS Invincible, which had steamed to within 500 miles of the Argentine mainland. The Sea King was carrying a recce party of B Squadron SAS, who were heading to scout the Super Etendard airbase at Rio Grande. It would be a one way trip for the Sea King – lacking the range to make it back to the task force, she was stripped down to the bare essentials. Landing west of the Chilean border, the aircraft was ditched in a lake. Even though the aircrew punched holes in her fuselage, she refused to sink. The aircrew were picked up in Chile and flown home.The SAS men believed that they had been spotted by the Chileans, and messaged their HQ in Hereford informing that the mission was being aborted. They had indeed been spotted, and 1,300 Argentine Marines sweeped the area searching for them.

This failure meant that the main party would have to go in blind. The fact that the recce party might have been compromised also meant that the Argentines might be suspicious and on alert. The Rio Grande area was believed to be defended by four Battalions of Argentine Marines. Despite this, the Squadron OC ordered the raid to go ahead. The operation had been rehearsed thoroughly for the past week.

The Mikado plan seems to have been strongly pushed for by Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, then director of British Special Forces. The plan called for two RAF C130 Hercules to fly from Ascension Island with 55 men of B Squadron SAS onboard. The Hercules would land on the tarmac of the runway, keeping their engines running while the SAS men destroyed the Etendards. If somehow the C130’s survived they men would re-board the aircraft and fly to neutral Chile. If not, then the survivors would have to cross the border on foot. The proposed plan was extremely sensitive, as it extended the war to the South American mainland – something that would not find favour among international opinion.

Tying up to Hercules transport aircraft meant that they would at best be interned in Chile for the duration, at worst be destroyed entirely. But perhaps worse than that, 55  expensively trained SAS troops – a significant proportion of Britain’s special forces – were being put in serious danger. Would the loss of these men and two aircraft have represented a good exchange for five Super Etendards?

One cannot help but feel that de la Billiere was taking his inspiration from raids on Axis airfields in North Africa. The situation in 1982 was quite different – the Argentines surely expected some kind of attack on their air bases. Perhaps DLB was inspired by Operation Entebbe, an Israeli operation to recover hostages on a hijacked airliner in Uganda. The Ugandan Forces in 1976 posed far less of a threat to the Israelis than the Argentines did to the SAS, both in terms of early warning and anti-air defences. The Argentine radar might give them a six minute warning of the incoming aircraft – ample time to throw up stout defences.

The SAS men – a lot more sensible and less bloodthirsty than popularculture would have us believe – do not seem to have liked the plan one bit, seeing it as a suicide mission. One Sergeant went as far as handing in his resignation. One RAF Pilot assigned to the mission is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The Squadron Commander agreed with the concept, but did not like the specifics of the plan that he was being pressured into implementing. The Squadron Commander was removed and replaced with the Regiment’s second in command. According to some accounts, De la Billiere made himself very unpopular in some quarters, as it was felt that he was trying to engineer a high-profile mission for the Regiment. After the war De la Billiere delivered a extremely ill-judged – some might say bad taste laden – speech to the SAS men, near enough accusing them of mutiny. He was laughed out of the room.

In hindsight, taking the war to the Argentine mainland in such a manner would have escalated the war, and not reflected well on the British effort to retake the islands. The Argentines were almost certainly on their guard against such an event, and it would be hard to believe that the slow, unarmed Hercules would be sitting ducks for the Argentine air defences. If they guarded Stanley airport with Roland and Tigercat missiles and radar-laid Rheinmetal cannon, what would they be guarding a mainland Super Etendard base with?

By contrast with Operation Mikado, the raid on Pebble Island was an outstanding success. Off West Falkland, Pebble Island hosted a small airfield with Pucara light attack aircraft and Mentor reconaissance craft. These aircraft were will within range of the chosen landing site at San Carlos, and could have compromised the amphibious task group on its way to the landings, and then launched attacks on the ships and troops at their most vulnerable point. According to Sandy Woodward’s memoirs, he was pondering the problem with his planning team when a ‘talking tree’ SAS officer chipped in, ‘I wonder if we might be able to help, Admiral?’. After convincing the SAS that they could not spend two weeks planning, the raid was set for the night of 14 and 15 May.

Boat Troop of D Squadron carried out prior reconaissance, via cockleshell-style Klepper canoes. On the night HMS Hermes sailed to off the north of West Falkland, accompanied by HMS Glamorgan. Sea King helicopters carried 45 members of D Squadron of the SAS, dropping them off just under four miles from the airfield. The raiding party were heavily armed, including mortars and anti-armour weapons. The party reached the airfield without being spotted, and managed to place explosive charges on all of the aircraft. Once the charges had been placed the SAS men opened fire with small arms, followed by gunfire support from HMS Glamorgan offshore.

The party were exfiltrated succesfully, with only one SAS man wounded. According to British sources the Argentine commander was killed – this is denied by the Argentines themselves – and 11 aircraft were destroyed. The raid was considered a complete success, with the objective neutralised and virtually no casualties suffered.

A further tragedy befell the SAS the night before the landings at San Carlos. Crossdecking between ships, a Sea King loaded with SAS men apparently struck a seabird in mid-flight. Of the 30 men on the aircraft, only eight got out alive. It was the largest loss of life for the Regiment since the Second World War. Many of the men lost were veterans of South Georgia and Pebble Island.

Other SAS patrols were out on the Falklands prior to the landings at San Carlos, carrying out the arguably less glamorous work of surveillance and survey work. Men ofthe SBS were on the landing beaches to guide the amphibious force in on D-Day. That the landings were succesful and unopposed was down very much to their work with the mark one human eyeball.

The profile and connections of the SAS do seem to have caused some problems for the force commanders on the ground. When more than one SAS Squadron deploys on an operation the CO accompanies them. In this instance he had direct satellite communication with Hereford and London, and hence was able to communicate with Britain quicker than any of his superiors. And in De la Billiere the SAS had a vociferous supporter who was not afraid to knock down doors in the interests of ‘his’ Regiment. Was Operation Mikado a political construction to aid the Regiment’s profile?

The experiences of special forces in the Falklands would suggest that there is much value in having highly trained, very capable special forces on call for unforseen eventualities. When tasked to do a job properly and given the resources to do it, the investment more than pays dividends. But, and this is a big but, they need to be properly used, and employed with care. As with most things military, it is about knowing your tools, and what jobs to use them for.

8 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, special forces, Uncategorized

Another F-35 Volte Face

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, bu...

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all about today announcement by the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons explaining the Government’s decision to backtrack and purchase the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter, instead of the conventional carrier version. The original plan was, of course, to purchase the STOVL version – ie F-35B – as replacement for the Harriers, to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers.

The coalition has now performed two u-turns on the Joint Strike Fighter issue. First, soon after coming into office they abandoned the vertical take-off verson, in favour of  the higher performance variant. Now, having seen the costs for installing catapults and traps on the aircraft carriers spiral, they have decided to go back to the vertical take off variant.

One cannot help but feel that this constant to-ing and fro-ing has probably added a significant amount to the cost, for no discernible gain, and will almost certainly delay their introduction into service. And as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, there is nothing more annoying than a customer who keeps changing their mind every five minutes. It’s bad enough if someone is buying a book or a loaf of bread, but 50+ fighter aircraft?

There are some upshots to the decision. It is possible that both aircraft carriers will come into service, and slightly earlier in 2018, compared to lengthy delays if they had to be converted to ‘cat and trap’. There have been some concerns that the B version has a less impressive performance than the C version. Compare the following specs:

  • Range – B version, 900 nautical miles; C Version, 1,400 nautical miles
  • combat radius – B version, 469 nautical miles; C Version, 615 nautical miles

The lack of range is apparently due to the B version having to accomodate extra plant for vertical landing, which eats into its fuel capacity. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the differences do not seem too critical – isn’t the beauty of an aircraft carrier that you can move it 100 miles closer in if need be, and if safe to do so? Apparently the B version will be able to carry less weapons than the C version as well, however I am having trouble finding firm specifications for this. It should also be remembered that the B version will, in theory, be able to operate short-term or in an emergency from other ships that have landing spaces, or from rough airstrips on land – neither of which the F-35 C can do. By way of a contrast, the Sea Harrier had a combat radius of 540 nautical miles, but didn’t have such a high performance as the F-35 in other respects. I seem to recall that the SHAR was hardly bristling with armaments either.

The decision making regarding the Joint Strike Fighter project has been flawed from day one. Perhaps setting out to buy the STOVL versions was not the wisest decision in hindsight, but to decide to switch to the C version, and then back to the B version again in a year shows a serious case of indecision and narrow-mindedness. A decision that was supposed to save money in the long run, ended up costing us more money in the short term and not happening anyway. Let’s hope that this kind of defence procurement strategic direction never transgresses into decision making in war.

Still, I cannot help but feel that we would have been far better off purchasing some F-18’s off the shelf in the first place – both in terms of cost and capabilitity.

28 Comments

Filed under Navy, News, Uncategorized

First names inscribed on Portsmouth’s Second World War Memorial

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first batch of names on Portsmouth’s Second World War Memorial have been inscribed recently.

I haven’t had a chance to read through the panel in detail yet, but upon first glance it looks like most if not all of the several hundreds missing names I submitted are there.

Among them is my great-uncle, Leading Stoker Thomas Henry Daniel Daly who died after the SS Laconia was torpedoed in 1942.

Leave a comment

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – the Black Buck Vulcan raids

 Falkland Islands, Stanley Airport, Black Buck ...

Thirty years ago one of the RAF’s most incredible ever bombing raids took place over the South Atlantic. The Black Buck Vulcan raids were long-range operations against Argentine targets on the occupied Falkland Islands.

One of the problems facing any attacking force is that of gaining air superiority. Without it, the enemy can bomb and landing operations at will. Even so, when the task force did land at San Carlos it only had a minimum of air superiority, and still lost two ships sunk. Early on it was identified that the Argentines could attempt to operate fast, high performance jets such as the Mirage from Stanley airfield.

Without Stanley airfield, the Argentine Air Force had to operate from bases on the mainland. As such, aircraft patrolling over the Falklands or on missions were at the very limit of their range, had to be refuelled on their journey, and had limited potential for payloads and dogfighting. If, however, Stanley airfield could be used, their time on station could be improved considerably.

The RAF’s Vulcan fleet was on the verge of retirement. Designed and built by Avro as nuclear bombers during the early Cold War, although the Royal Navy had taken over the core nuclear deterrent role, hardly anyone in the Vulcan fleet had even practised conventional bombing. Immediately that the Stanley airfield problem became apparent, the Vulcan fleet began practising air-to-air refuelling (their likely operating base would be Ascension Island, still thousands of miles from the Falklands), conventional bombing and avoiding the Argentines known anti-aircraft missiles, particularly Roland and Tiger Cat, and Rheinmetal anti-aircraft cannons.

Beginning on the night of 30 April and 1 May 1982, Vulcan Bombers of 44 Squadron RAF launched ultra long range bombing raids on Argentine targets on the occupied Falkland Islands. After the first aircraft intended for the raid – XM598 piloted by Squadron Leader John Reeve -developed a fault with the rubber seal on its canopy window, XM607 piloted by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers took over. Vulcan 607 was refulled an incredible SEVEN times during the southbound journey, from Victor Tankers flying out of Ascension Island.

21 1,000lb bombs were dropped, on a track bisecting the runway at an angle of 35 degrees – calculated to ensure that at least one, and possibly two bombs would crater the runway. Reconaissance photographs appear to suggest that at least one bomb did hole the runway, and the others fell in the vicinity of the airfield. It has been suggested by some that the Argentines created fake craters on the airfield, in order to mislead British intelligence. Whether the craters were fake or not, no fast jets attempted to fly out of Stanley – only lower performance types such as the C-130 Hercules. Of course, it may be that the Argentines had never intended to fly Mirages out of Stanley anyway. If that is the case, then they were making a grave error. Even so, British planners had no way of knowing this.

I’m really in two minds about the legacy of the Black Buck raids. That it was a remarkable feat is beyond question. As a morale boosting raid, it still sounds great today. The statistics speak for themselves – the longest bombing raid in history at the  time. It would have taken 11 Sea Harriers to deliver the same payload of bombs. But notably, it was also the RAF’s only real headline involvement in the Falklands War. Ever keen to promote itself, did the junior service push for the raids to avoid missing out on the party and the potential feel-good factor afterwards? Not to mention that a succesful, high profile role in any way is usually a good bargaining chip when it comes to the usual post-war rethinking of defence policy.

But, was it worth it? Well, to assess whether it was worth it, we have to substantiate what effect it had. This is where things get slightly tricky. I’m yet to be convinced, either way, whether the runway at Stanley airfield was damaged or not. And, if so, to what extent. The problem is that so much rides on the legact of Black Buck, that records – including aerial photographs and eyewitness reports – have been variously interpreted to fit whatever argument various parties have seen fit. Of course, it suits the RAF to argue that Black Buck was succesful. Any organisation that, reportedly, moved Australia on the map to suit its argument, is not going to be too bothered about misleading people. We also have to recognise the vast resources expended in the mission – in that sense, did the raids represent good value militarily? Were the Argentines going to operare Mirages out of Stanley? Even if they had, would it have made a big difference? A lot of interconnecting ifs and buts.

As much as I find Rowland White’s Vulcan 607 a ripping yarn, and a triumph of British ingenuity and application, in terms of the purely military value of Black Buck, I think the compelling case is yet to be made. Historically, do they deserve to stand up against the Dams raid, the Tirpitz raid or Peenemunde, for example? Whilst undoubtedly a heroic effort of stamina and skill, the Black Buck raids had a lot less flak flying at them for the duration of the journey compared to the average Lancaster pilot over the Ruhr in 1943 and much more modern technology at hand. And, it has to be said, something of a higher chance of survival too.

19 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – the sinking of the Belgrano

The Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano lis...

The first heavy loss of life in the Falklands War occured when the British Submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine Crusier, the General Belgrano on 3 May 1982.

The ARA General Belgrano was a Brooklyn Class Cruiser, originally built for the US Navy as USS Phoenix. In that guise she served throughout the Second World War, before being sold to Argentina and renamed in 1955. In 1982 she had an armament of 15 6-inch guns, 5 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, as well as 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. In 1968 she was retro-fitted with Sea Cat missile systems, which we obsolescent in 1982. As a WW2 vintage ship she had relatively thick armour compared to other Falklands-ear ships, her main belt of armour being 5.5 inches thick, and her deck armour 2 inches. The Belgrano did not actually take part in the operations to invade the Islands – Operation Rosario – but eventually put to see from Ushaia in southern Argentina on 26 April, accompanied by her two destroyer escorts, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA ARA Bouchard (both also ex-US Navy ships).

The British battle group had entered the north east of the exclusion zone around the islands on 1 May. The Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, feared that the Belgrano and her escorts would form the southern part of a pincer attack by the Argentine fleet, with the northern pincer formed of the aircraft carrier Vienticino de Mayo. The de Mayo had actually been preparing to launch a Skyhawk strike on the British fleet on 2 May, when light winds made it impossible to launch aircraft. She was also escorted by two Type 42 Destroyers, Santissima Trinidad and Hercules. HMS Spartan had been assigned to track down the de Mayo, and although she never located the carrier, Woodward’s memoirs suggest that if she had, she would have been sunk.

There seems to have been a lot of controversy in recent years about the sinking of the Belgrano. It has been painted as a monstrous, heavy-handed or even illegal act by left-wingers, anti-war activits and Argentines alike. Nobody in Argentina – in particular men on the Belgrano – seems to have been aggrieved that the Conqueror attacked the Belgrano whilst she was outside the exclusion zone. Hovering around the edge of a war zone, with clearly hostile intent, is asking to be sunk. On 23 April a message was passed to the Argentine government via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, to inform that although the British Government had announced a maritime exclusion zone, it would not limit its actions to within this zone if hostile threats occured outside of the zone. This is an important point to make. Essentially, any Argentine ship leaving port was liable to be attacked.

Sandy Woodward later said that “the speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention”. The decision to torpedo the Belgrano was taken after much deliberation, though the military chain of command and at war cabinet level. It was not a decision that seems to have been taken lightly. Indeed, Conqueror seems to have been tracking the Belgrano for three days before she attacked – hardly ideal, militarily, as it placed the Conqueror at much risk, but it does show that due diligence was taken. We also need to recognise that the sinking of the Belgrano did represent a fine feat of arms by the Conqueror’s crew and her Captain Christopher Wreford-Brown. It certainly suggests that British submarine’s were very effective, not surprising given that they had spent years practising their craft in the North Atlantic shadow-boxing with the Soviet submarine fleet.

Interestingly, a book published in 2011 suggested that signals intelligence showed that the Belgrano was actually steaming towards a rendevouz inside the exclusion zone, which clearly would signal hostile intent. Accounts from survivors suggest that the ship was not in a high state of defence – neither the Belgrano nor her two destroyers were zig-zagging. Compare this lax state to some of the vigorous anti-submarine actions taken by the British task force during the war. It is absolutely tragic that over three hundred young men died when the Belgrano was sunk. But it is even more tragic that they were condemmed to their deaths by a Government and a Navy that sent young, poorly trained conscripts sea in an obsolete ship, with inadequate anti-submarine defences, lifejackets or liferafts.

What might have happened had the Belgrano not been sunk? Certainly, her 6-inch guns outranged and outgunned anything that the British fleet had. They were almost certainly outranged by surface missiles such as Exocet, but none the less the Belgrano and her task force, could, potentially, have caused some damage to the task force. In particular, if the de Mayo had managed to launch air strikes, and the Belgrano had appeared from the south, a double threat might have been a bit of a problem. Add into that mix the potential for Super Etendard Exocet strikes, then we can see that it was important for the British to remove whatever threats they could, however they could.

The sinking of the Belgrano not only removed the Argentine Navy‘s second most dangerous ship from the war, it also had a serious morale effect – not only did it provide a boost early in the war, but it also compelled the Argentine Navy – agitators in starting the war in the first place – to scurry back into port and not sail out again for the rest of the conflict. This superiority of the waves made the British Task Force’s job that little less difficult when it came to gaining a degree of air superiority, and then eventually landing on the Falklands.

15 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized