Tag Archives: Falklands War

Warship preservation: HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth

This is HMS Caroline (1914) in the Titanic Qua...

HMS Caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been following with interest the stories of two particular ‘grey navy’ warships of the twentieth century: the Great War vintage Destroyer HMS Caroline, and the Falklands veteran Frigate HMS Plymouth.

I’ve gone on record before with my opinion that warship preservation in this country is woeful. We have a marvellous collection of older historic ships – Mary Rose, Victory, Warrior, Trincomalee, Great Britain to name but a few. But HMS Belfast aside, we have a terrible record of preserving twentieth century warships for the future admiration of British people who did not live through those turbulent years. It’s an inadequate tribute to the millions of British men – and women – who served with distinction during some of Britain’s finest years.

Portsmouth was perhaps the first place to really tap into the naval heritage idea. Of course, HMS Victory went into dry dock here in the 1920′s, around the same time as which the Royal Naval Museum was founded. With the freeing up of space and docks in the yard as it was run down, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose joined in the 1980′s, making a fine collection of ships. There was definitely a concerted effort to develop the historic dockyard in Portsmouth, with an awareness that the Royal Navy and the Dockyard were winding down, and that tourism would be a growth sector.

Yet what is really missing is a ship from the ‘grey navy’, the twentieth century. Time and time again ships have been decomissioned, and ideas for preservation mooted, with nothing happening and a flood of fine old ships going to the breakers yard. Personally I think that HMS Fearless would have made a fine museum, with a flight deck for various events, and a tank deck that would have given plenty of potential for exhibitions etc. It also would have made a useful link up with the Royal Marines Museum.

At present HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth are the two most prominent warships up for grabs. But both, steeped in history, are at serious risk of going for razorblades. HMS Caroline was built in 1914, and served at Jutland. After the end of the First World War she was decomissioned and has served as a naval reserve depot ship in Northern Ireland ever since. She was finally decomissioned in March 2011. She is formally under the ownership of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, based in Portsmouth. There have been plans to open her up as a museum ship in Belfast, but nothing more than public pronounciations. It’s time for definite action if they want to keep her there – such an important ship should not be allowed to sail into oblivion because the city leaders in Belfast can’t come up with a plan to make good on their promises. The MOD will commence disposal procedures soon if a concrete plan is not formed for her future use, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy have promised that if Belfast cannot get their act together she will be brought to Portsmouth. Presumably if that happens then we’ll hear a lot from Belfast about the pesky English stealing their ship. If it matters that much, they’ll find a way. Somehow I doubt it. Whatever happens, she should be preserved as closely to her 1914 appearance as possible, where as many people as possible can see her and appreciate her.

The Falklands War veteran HMS Plymouth, a Type 12 Frigate, is also in a vulnerable state at present. Decomissioned in 1988, for some years she was a Museum ship in Birkenhead. However, In 2006 the Trust that owned her closed, leaving her homeless. She is still in Birkenhead, but time is running out to find a permanent home for her. Plymouth has expressed a trust in homing her, fittingly in her old home port and namesake city. However, the offer of a berth at Millbay Docks was withdrawn in 2007, and it has been rumoured that she has been sold for scrapping – these reports are, as far as I can tell, unconfirmed. The situation with inactivity is similar to that in Belfast – Plymouth City Council has ‘expressed an interest’, but nothing more. Plymouth’s record on naval heritage isn’t so much woeful, but non-existant. Time and time again we hear MP’s Plymouth pleading that the loss of the naval base would decimate the city. Yet virtually nothing has been done to develop any kind of alternative industries or maritime heritage sector. We’re constantly being told that Devonport is the largest naval base in Europe. Look on google maps, and then the list of RN ships based in Plymouth, and you can see that there is plenty of superfluous space there. There was a possibility at one time that she could come to Portsmouth, but to be honest she has very little connection with Pompey, and if it comes to a choice between Caroline and Plymouth, the authorities will probably choose Caroline.

Personally I would like to see both preserved, and maintained to their 1916 and 1982 appearance respectively, in a setting that does them justice. But we just don’t do warship preservation in this country. I’ve done a bit of research on Museum ships in the US – they have seven battleships, five aircraft carriers, once cruiser, five submarines and two destroyers. Considering Britain’s proud naval history, what we have left is a poor return. Although they are large and expensive to maintain, ships should be seen in the same context as how museums develop their collections of other historically important artefacts. And what better way to display naval heritage than in a ship? Any other way seems inadequate in my opinion. Reading about the Nelsonian navy is one thing, but going onboard HMS Victory is on a different planet. It just needs more planning and foresight – potential museum ships need to be identified before they leave service, and chosen for their suitability.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Falklands 30 – Atlantic Conveyor

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Fa...

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Falklands. About 19 May 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic Conveyor was a twelve year old merchant container and vehicle transporter. Requisitioned on 14 April 1982, she was hurriedly refitted at Devonport Dockyard for service with the South Atlantic task force. She sailed from Plymouth on 25 April after undergoing trials, and was carrying 5 Chinook and 6 Wessex Helicopters.

Merchant vessels taken up by trade during the Falklands War present an interesting scenario.  Although most of their civilian crew stayed onboard and came under the naval discipline act, vessels also had a Naval party of officers and ratings onboard. Obviously, a merchant vessels master will know how to sail the ship better than a naval captain might, but would not necessarily know as much about naval warfare. Hence evidence suggests that the relationship between a ships master and senior naval officer, and indeed her civilian and naval crew, could be critical. The Atlantic Conveyor sailed with 31 merchant Seamen onboard, but 126 military personnel. Of these 36 officers and men formed the ships naval party, the rest were working on the aircraft carried.

She arrived at Ascension on 5 May, where she embarked 8 Sea Harriers as reinforcement for the Squadrons already in the South Atlantic, and 6 RAF Harrier GR3. Along with the amphibious group she left Ascension and arrived in the TEZ on 19 May, carrying a total of 25 aircraft. While entering the TEZ one Harrier was actually kept on deck alert, armed with Sidewinder missiles.

Although the Harriers were disembarked to Aircraft Carriers, the Altantic Conveyor retained her Helicopters onboard and remained with the Carrier Battle Group to the East while the landings at San Carlos began. She was due to sail into San Carlos Water on the night of 25 May to deliver her cargo. At 1940 that evening an air raid warning was received. Captain Ian North ordered an immediate turn to port by 40 degrees, to present th Conveyor’s strong stern doors to the direction of the threat. Emergency stations were piped, and the ships siren was sounded as an extra warning. HMS Invincible launched a Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol. At 1942 an approaching missile was sighted by several ships, including HMS Brilliant. All of the naval ships in the vicinity fired off chaff decoys, but the Conveyor had not been given chaff. She was hit by two exocet missiles at

The missiles penetrated her main cargo deck, and a fireball spread through the ship. As a merchant ship she was not equipped with the kind of damage control that naval warships are, such as bulkheads or sealable sections. Fires spread through her vast, cavernous hold. Firefighting was therefore impossible, and she was abandoned in an orderly manner thirty minutes after being hit – even though cluster bombs were beginning to be ignited by the fires. After burning for another day, she sank whilst under tow on 28 May. Only one of her Chinook helicopters had left – and that only for a test flight.

One of the sad statistics about the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor is that of the 12 men who lost their lives, 9 of them had actually managed to escape the ship but died whilst awaiting rescue in the water. Among them was the ships civilian Master, Captain Ian North. North had made it into the sea, but slipped between the waves before boarding a lifeboat. The Senior Naval Officer survived but was deeply moved by the loss of his friend. That 139 of her crew of 149 – 92% – were rescued is testament to the great efforts made by ships and helicopters in the area. One of the helicopters assisting in the rescue was reportedly co-piloted by Prince Andrew.

The loss of the Atlantic Conveyors considerable troop-carrying helicopters meant that the land forces would, in the main, have to tab or yomp across East Falkland towards Stanley. This no doubt made executing the war a much harder porposition, than if six Chinooks had been available to lift the Paras, Marines, Guardsmen and Gurkhas right from Stanley to the Mountains. The Argentines might have prefered to have sunk one of the Aircraft Carriers, but sinking the Atlantic Conveyor was a remarkable piece of luck which probably prolonged the war for days if not weeks.

The Board of Inquiry into the Atlantic Conveyor found no fault with anyone involved in the loss of the ship, only raising minor points that could not possibly have been foreseen, especially given the speed with which merchant vessels had been co-opted into the war effort. It had been nigh-impossible, in the time available, to give much thought to the loading of explosive cargoes, as would have been the case in peacetime. Obviously she didn’t have the same kind of Magazine arrangements that a military ship might have.

It’s an interesting thought, that with a lack of platforms for flying helicopters, and an uncertain world, might it be possible to use ships such as the Atlantic Conveyor in an emergency once again? Her use was very similar to some of the Merchant Navy ships in the Second World War that were fitted to operate a small number of aircraft. Of course, the Harriers were ideal for this as vertical take off aircraft. And do we have enough spare naval personnel nowadays to provide naval party’s in a hurry? Being able to fit merchant vessels with Chaff in an emergency would also seem to be a lesson learn from the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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