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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Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield (D80) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the sinking of the Belgrano and the Vulcan raid on Stanley airfield, there certainly seems to have been a feeling that the gloves were now off in the South Atlantic.

HMS Sheffield, the lead ship of the Type 42 class of Destroyers, was built at Vickers at Barrow, being launched in 1970 and commissioned in 1975. She was a Portsmouth based ship, as were the rest of the Type 42’s. The Sheffield had been away from home for quite some time, having been taking part in Exercise Spring Train on her way home from an Arabian Gulf Patrol when she was diverted down south.

When the Task Force entered the Exclusion Zone on 1 May, the three Type 42 Destroyers – Sheffield, Coventry and Glasgow – were ‘up front’ performing radar picket duty. Their Type 965 radar in particular gave good long-range coverage, and in that sense the Type 42’s were they eyes and ears of the task force, and the outer layer of the air defence ‘onion skin’ based around protecting the vital aircraft carriers. A very important task – which the modern Type 45’s are very much suited for – but a very lonely and dangerous job too.

It was known that the Argentines had purchased a number of French Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be launched from Super Etendard aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. Although the French had withdrawn their technical support as part of the EEC arms embargo, it was expected that the Argentines would at least attempt to use them. After the loss of the Belgrano, this suspicion was even more keenly felt.

HMS Sheffield was first spotted by an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft at 7.50am on 4 May. The Neptune tracked the Sheffield for the next two hours, obviously undetected. At 9.45am two Exocet-armed Super Etendard’s took off from Tierra del Fuego, refuelling from a KC-130 Hercules tanker on their way to the target. At 10.50am both aircraft ‘popped up’ from their low-level flight. After failing to sight the target initially, 25 miles later the Sheffield appeared on the Etendard’s radar screens.

Both Etendards launched their Exocet’s at 10am, at a range of 20 to 3 miles. The sea-skimming missiles raced towards the Sheffield. The Etendard’s had not been detected by the task force as had been expected – it was intended that anti-Exocet procedures would begin once the Etendard’s radar signature was detected. The missiles, however, were spotted by the other Type 42 Glasgow. Sheffield, however, appeared to be silent and inactive. She had been using her satellite communications, which rendered her Typ3 965 radar inoperable for a short time. Sheffield was silent, until the anonymous message was heard ‘ Sheffield is hit’.

One of the Exocets was eventually picked up by the Sheffield, but far too late to do much about it. Five seconds later, the missile struck Sheffield amidships, tearing a gash in her hull feet above the water line. Evidence suggests that the missiles warhead did not explode, but the ships fire main was fractured. The combination of this and the burning of un-spent missile fuel caused a fire to spread through parts of the ship. Eventually the fire was so hot that the ships paint bubbled and blistered, and the heat on the deck could be felt through boots. The Sheffield was effectively dead in the water.

Sheffield was taken in tow by HMS Yarmouth, but sank days later after water flooded through the gash in her side. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty of her crew were killed, most of whom were in the Galley at the time of the missile strike. As a Portsmouth based ship all of them were either from Portsmouth or had Portsmouth connections. Looking back, it is difficult not to form an opinion that the loss of the Sheffield – the first havy loss of the conflict – delivered a serious reality check to officials and public, many of whom might have been under the illusion that the Falklands might be an easy war.

As a result of the strike on the Sheffield, the Task Force changed it’s missile defence procedures. As soon as the Etendard’s radar signature was picked up, the codeword ‘handbrake’ would start the wholesale launching of chaff decoys, thousands of tiny metal strips that were intended to divert any missiles away from ships. The Argentines launched other Exocet strikes, but the only other ship to be sunk by one was the merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor, later in the war.

The official MOD report into the sinking – as is cutomary whenever a ship is damaged or lost – found that the ships fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures were poor, and criticised certain anonymous members of the crew, who are difficult to positively identify and the report is heavily redacted. When the Sheffield’s Captain, Sam Salt, landed on the flagship HMS Hermes, he was received in a cold manner, and all but left on his own according to eyewitnesses. This coldness would suggest that their was a feeling at the time that the Sheffield was caught with her pants down. It’s probably difficult for those of us who have not commanded a Destroyer in war to form any kind of opinion on this, except perhaps that in the ‘fog of war’ unfortunate events do sadly happen.

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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.

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Falklands 30 – Dockies, the unsung First Sea Lord and the same old from CFK

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems quite odd joining the ‘Falklands 30′ bandwagon, considering that a large proportion of the words written on this blog over the past three years or so have been about the Falklands! But I have been struck by three things over the last few days – the lack of credit given to the Dockyard workers, the importance of Admiral Sir Henry Leach, and the never-ending tripe emanating from Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires.

Firstly I want to pay a huge tribute to a group of people who were, for me, the unsung heroes of the Falklands campaign. The dockyard workers of Portsmouth Royal Dockyard – and indeed other places such as Plymouth and Chatham – prepared the fleet for action in an unbelievably short time. Argentina invaded the Falklands on 2 April. The Carrier Group – including HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes – sailed from Portsmouth on 5 April. Thats a turnaround of three days, to get two big, capital ships into action. The Hermes at least was destored. Many of the dockies – not dockers -were under threat of redundancy after Sir John Nott‘s defence cuts of the previous year, and his plan to emasculate the Dockyard. My Dad had left the Dockyard only weeks previously. Stories abound of men working round the clock, many setting up camp beds near their workstations. One Dockyard worker had to be almost forcibly removed from his machine after a 36 hour shift. We probably couldn’t put in a mammoth effort like that now, with a vastly reduced workforce, and much of it outsourced to private hands. There’s a great article about the Dockyard during the Falklands here in the Portsmouth News.

I’m also amazed by how little attention is given to another of the unsung heroes of the Falklands War – Admiral Sir Henry Leach. Leach, the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, happened to be in Whitehall in full dress uniform on 2 April. With his boss the Chief of the Defence Staff away on an official visit, Leach took it upon himself to seek out the Prime Minister. At the time Mrs Thatcher was in her House of Commons meeting room with the Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott. Nott was outlining the difficulties that any military operation would entail. Leach was kept waiting outside by flunkies, but one Thatcher learnt of his presence, she asked for him to be shown in. Leach proceeded to explain that an operation to re-take the Falklands would be possible. And not only that, he overstepped his authority and explained that it SHOULD take place. When asked why he said this by Mrs Thatcher, he explained that ‘if not, soon we will be living in a very different country where words count for little’. Liking this, the Prime Minister sent him away with approval to form a task force. Apparently John Nott went white as a sheet. Not only had he been outplayed by one of his subordinates, but his defence reforms were in tatters. I am reminded of the officer in Bridge over the River Kwai, who loses grip on reality and tries to prevent the demolition of the bridge.

Henry Leach and Terence Lewin were seadogs of a different age. Having been to war in 1939-45, they were cut from different cloth than our political commanders of current years. Would modern First Sea Lords tell a Prime Minister exactly what they think, contrary to the Defence Secretary’s advice? Sadly, politicians don’t seem to tolerate professional wisdom nowadays. If I were Prime Minister, I would rather uncomfortable advice from an experienced serviceman, than hollow rhetoric from a career politician. Henry Leach was 100% right – Britain would be a very different place now, if it had not stood up for its beleagured friends in 1982.

It never ceases to amaze me the rubbish that Cristina Fernandez comes out with down in Buenos Aires. This time she hijacks the anniversary of an Argentine-instigated war, to argue that ‘colonial enclaves are absurd’. I’m still not sure how exactly she can have the gall to say that, given that the Falklands were under British sovereignty before Argentina even existed. Argentina itself is made up of the diaspora of colonial conquerors in the Spanish. This fascinating article by John Simpson tells us the story from another angle – the growing domination of the press by the Government in Argentina; the ‘official’ inflation rate of 7% and the indenpendent rate of 22%; and the feeling that Fernandez has resorted to traditional route one Argentine politics by wheeling out the Malvinas issue when there are social and economic problems at home. The sad thing is, that the majority of Argentines appear to believe her tripe.

In recent years it has routinely been peddled that the rest of South America is at one with Buenos Aires over the Falklands. Certainly, no one has said or done anything to dispel this myth. But Simpson argues that Fernandez is taking Argentina down a dysfunctional and isolated path, taking the country closer to dubious regimes such as Venezuela and Iran, which more moderate South American leaders are understandably not happy about. Fernandez is propogating something of a cult of personality, Chavez style. A snazzy dresser (for an Argentine, anyway!), and quite possibly reconstructed by surgical means, she also rarely gives interviews, only broadcasting direct on national television. She has reportedly annoyed Brazil by proposing a non-nuclear zone in the South Atlantic – obviously with an eye on putting a shot across British bows. However, Brazil is currently building a fleet of nuclear submarines.

I cannot help but feel that if Britain tries to weather the storm emanating from BA, reacting robustly and being prepared, that eventually Fernandez and her ilk will have no choice but to moderate their behaviour. It’s hard to see it lasting for too long in that regional and international context.

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Another radio appearance and more talks

Hi All!

I’m going to be a studio guest on the Sasha Twining Show on BBC Radio Solent this Saturday morning, between 8 and 9am – an early wake up for me! I will be talking about my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, the Falklands War and myself. If you can prize yourself out of bed so early at the weekend feel free to listen, or if not it will be on iplayer for a short time after the show.

I also have a couple of new talks booked.

On Saturday 12th May I will be giving a talk at Portsmouth Central Library, as part of Adult Learning Week. I will have books available for sale, and I will be happy to sign them of course.

And… on Monday 28th May I will be giving a talk on a Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth heading to France, and then another one on the return journey!

Has anyone else given a talk outside of territorial waters?!

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Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories from the Falklands Campaign by Christopher Hilton

With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War coming up in a matter of weeks, we will probably see a considerable amount of new books being dedicated to the war. This book by Christopher Hilton is the first ‘Falklands 30′ book that I have received.

I find it quite an interesting concept that  Hilton – in stark contrast to, say, the Falklands book by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins – chose to write about only men who were on the very lowest ladder of the military hierarchy – privates, sailors and marines. The idea was, as he explains, that they were the men who were most at mercy of events – they could not give orders to anyone, only follow. Included are naval ratings, a man who was on the Atlantic Conveyor, marines, paras and a sapper. As you might expect, I wholeheartedly approve of such a ‘grass roots’ level of history.

The are some fascinating anecdotes here, the kind that you only get from an oral history based, down to earth approach such as this. There’s the chinese laundryman who hid from air raids in one of the ships tumbloe dryers, and was awarded the British Empire Medal. One rating had to send a brief telegram home from HMS Sheffield when she was sent south, telling his fiance to cancel their impending wedding. One man who lost an eye in the war found that he was not allowed to become a postman or a traffic warden, but could become a taxi driver!

What I find interesting, is that in place some of the recollections of these blokes are at odds with the history books. To take one example, one of the men featured refers to one of the Marine Commando’s going to the Falklands onboard HMS Ark Royal or HMS Bulwark. In fact, the Ark had been scrapped and Bulwark was rusting in Portsmouth Dockyard. He must have meant their close sibling HMS Hermes. But what this story does portray, is that the men on the ground were not necessarily completely in the loop all of the time about major events – they seem to have been overwhelmingly concerned with what was happening in front of them, and their mates next to them.

For me, the clincher which makes this book so important is the prominent space given to coverage of the hidden wounds of war – namely, the high number of Falklands veterans who have suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the years since the war. In fact, it is an oft-quoted belief that more Falklands survivors have committed suicide in the ensuing years, than the number of men who died there in 1982. Whilst the Americans had learnt about PTSD in Vietnam, it was still a relative unknown to the British military. Each of the interviews talked remarkably candidly about their experiences post-war – in some cases alcohol, crime and even prison sentences feature. They talk about the strain on relationships, especially with their families. They also talk about their returns to the battlefields, and how this affected them. Intriguingly, several of them note with approval that men fighting in Afghanistan now receive very good after-care for mental trauma issues.

I was transfixed by this book. I hardly put it down from cover to cover.

Ordinary Heroes is published by The History Press

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Argentina take Falklands issues to the UN

ID: DN-SC-94-01949 Service Depicted: Navy A po...

Image via Wikipedia

The Argentines have been steadily ratcheting up the pressure on the Falklands for the past few years, and yesterday the Argentine Foreign Minister met with the Secretary General of the United Nations to air the South American country’s grievances.

I spent a fair bit of time studying the history of the United Nations some years ago, and took part in a few model United Nations debates. Therefore you could say I have a bit of an insight into how the organisation works. It is certainly not an idyllic, righteous organisation like it was intended to be. In reality, it is dominated by the large block of non-aligned countries who vote en-masse, and in particular ex-colonial countries who still have a chip on their shoulders about imperialism. Hence Britain often comes in for a bit of a bashing at the UN.

Lets look at the history of Britain and decolonialisation. Britain effectively gave up much of her Empire post-1945, and it has to be said, handled it much better than other decolonising countries, such as France, Belgium, Holland, and even Portugal. Yet somehow that fact seems to go un-noticed. Seeing the Falklands through the prism of colonialism is misleading, as the islands themselves never had any kind of population before British settlers arrived over two hundred years ago. At that point, Argentina did not even exist. Argentina itself is a nation of settlers – in the last Argentine census, only 1.6% of the population declared themselves to be descended from Amerindians. In that case, when are the other 98.4% going to be catching a flight home to Madrid?

To any observer with more than one brain cell, the Argentinians are shooting themselves in the foot by marching to the United Nations under the banner of colonialism. The United Nations is based on one fundamental tenet above all overs – that all human beings are born free and equal, and have the right to choose the kind of governance under which they live. Therefore, effectively Argentina wants to over-ride the fundamental principles of the United Nations, by annexing a country that is populated by citizens who wish to chose a different path for their destiny. 70 years ago, such policies drove Europe to war. The United Nations was founded to prevent war, yet by constantly listening to the Argentines morally and intellectually bankrupt histrionics, the UN is emboldening Fernandez Kirchner’s regime.

The Argentine Foreign Ministers claims about British escalation were also clearly untrue. We need to be very clear of the difference between nuclear POWERED submarines and nuclear ARMED submarines. South America is indeed a non-nuclear zone, a treaty to which Britain has long been a signatory. But think about it – Britain has four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines, which are armed with Trident nuclear missiles. These are to provide a nuclear deterrent against countries which might threaten a nuclear strike on Britain. Despite the end of the Cold War, this pretty much constitutes Russia. And perhaps China and some rogue states. Out of the four Vanguard class boats, usually one is ever on patrol under the waves. Why would Britain denude her nuclear deterrent by sending a sub to sit off Argentina? In any case, using nuclear missiles on a country like Argentina would hardly help Britain’s cause.

Now nuclear POWERED submarines are different – we have more of them, of the Astute and Trafalgar classes. But there is no limit on them going anywhere, as they only carry conventional torpedoes, and Tomahawk missiles. There is a distinct possibility that there is one in the South Atlantic, but that could have been the case at any point over the past 30 years since the Falklands War. The faint possibility that there might be one there now does not constitute an escalation. Neither does sending the new Type 45 Destroyer HMS Dauntless, nor sending Prince William on a tour of duty as a Search and Rescue Pilot. Both are completely routine deployments. In the case of Dauntless, the Type 45’s are replacing the Type 42’s which used to perform the South Atantic patrol task. Vastly improved, yes, but hey thats called progess and technology. And it seems to have escaped Buenos Aires attention that a Search and Rescue deployment is a humanitarian function – a yellow Sea King isn’t likely to start dropping depth charges.

Claims of a four fold increase in military assets are also laughable. The garrison of the Falklands has remained at the same levels for years – at sea a patrol vessel, a destroyer, perhaps an RFA and the ice patrol ship; on land a roulement infantry company and a Rapier detachment; and in the air four Typhoons, a VC10 and a Hercules, and the two Sea King SAR’s. Increasing that fourfold would give us the following:

  • Four Destroyers and Frigates – including a couple of Type 45’s
  • Probably another OPV
  • Couple more RFA’s – with that level of RN deployment, need tankers and supply ships
  • An Infantry Battalion – lets say, 2 Para?
  • Every Rapier launcher we can get
  • 2 Squadrons worth of Typhoons
  • More refuelling and transport aircraft
  • A few more helicopters for sundry tasks

Wow – that’s quite some force we have in the South Atlantic. Actually, if we had all of those assets in the Falklands like the Argentines are insinuating, they probably wouldn’t be able to take the islands. Ironic, eh?

I thought that the British ambassador at the UN did a very good job of rebutting these sensational but ludicrous claims. I, on the other hand, have been thinking about a career change for some time. I’m good at writing fiction – perhaps I could apply to become an Argentinian diplomat?

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Auxiliaries and Merchant vessels

English: NRP Bérrio, fleet support tanker of t...

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In 2009 I looked at the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy. But since then, it has occured to me that their roles are so similar and interlinked that it makes much more sense to look at them in unison.

The RFA of 2012 is woefully small. Even when we consider that the Royal Navy has contracted in size, the RFA has shrunk beyond proportion to that contraction. It can only field:

It should be noted that I have excluded the Bay Class LPD’s, which rightfully belong under ‘Amphibious Warfare’. This is absolutely microscopic when compared to the RFA effort that was required in 1982. In 1982 the RFA utilised:

  • 10 Tankers of four different classes
  • 2 Fort Class replenishment ships
  • 1 Helicopter Support ship
  • 2 Ammunition store ships
  • 1 Ness Class store ship

In addition, the Merchant Navy provided a very sizeable contribution to the logistics effort, and ships taken up from trade and chartered consisted of the following:

  • 9 troopships (to lift two brigades)
  • 4 aircraft/helicopter support ships
  • 1 ammunition ship
  • 1 general transport ship
  • 14 Oil Tankers
  • 1 Water Tanker
  • 2 Ocean going tugs
  • 1 mooring vessel
  • 2 repair ships
  • 3 Refrigerated stores ships
  • 1 hospital ship
  • 2 despatch vessels
  • 1 minesweeper support ship

I have been having a bit of trouble getting access to any kind of information of what ships comprise the Merchant Navy in the present day. Bearing in mind the kind of effort it took to maintain a task force in the South Atlantic 30 years ago, a logistical effort would probably be required on a similar kind of level. If such ships could not be requisitioned from British flagged companies, ships would have to be chartered – at considerable cost. It is surely never ideal to be chartering ships to take to war.

With the shrinking of the RFA, gaps exist for tankers and general store ships. The six Point Class roll-on roll-off ships could provide a very useful capability of lifting vehicles, equipment, stores and possibly aircraft if needed. RFA Argus could be utilised as a helicopter support ship, and given the utility of the repair ship RFA Diligence, it would seem that similar repair support would be invaluable, given that Diligence has also acted very usefully as a depot ship for submarines and minesweepers in the past. Any vessels – perhaps container ships – that could be quickly converted to transport and operate helicopters would be most useful. Liners and medium to large ferries would be needed as troopships, and if Argus was used for helicopter support another option would be needed for providing hospital ship(s).

There is a serious lack of Tankers in the RFA. With only two Wave Class Fleet Tankers, two smaller Rover Class Tankers and one Leaf Class support tanker, the ability to replenish ships at sea is very minimal indeed. Even then, often the Wave Class ships have been sent on patrol duties, intercepting drug smugglers and pirates and the like. Whilst large commercial tankers could be requisitioned or chartered, it remains to be seen how many of them could replenish ships at sea.

Presumably the Task Force would have use of Ascenscion Island as a staging post. The airfield at Wideawake has been used as RAF Ascencion Island since the War as part of the air bridge between the UK and the South Atlantic. Although Ascencion does not have a harbour, it does provide the only sheltered anchorage en-route to the Falklands. The construction of an aiport on Saint Helena, due for completion in 2015, would radically improve transport links with the South Atlantic. Hence Saint Helena could also be used as a logistics hub. I would be very surprised if the MOD has not leaned on DfID to ensure that St Helena Airport is not capable of supporting military operations if necessary.

Histories of the Falklands War suggest that the Ministry of Defence maintains a list of merchant ships suitable for use in the time of war. In 1982, it was found that many of these were light, cross-channel ferries totally unsuitable to sailing 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic. One would hope that the MOD has a similar list maintained in readiness for a future Falklands War, as it looks like any Task Force would be impossible without a significant Merchant Navy contribution. From a logistical sense, getting a Task Force to the South Atlantic and keeping it there would be of prime importance.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Frigates and Destroyers

English: , a stealth design of area defence an...

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In my 2009 review of the possibility of fighting another Falklands War, I identified a lack of escorts – Frigates and Destroyers – as a critical problem that might inhibit Britain’s ability to retake the Falklands after a hypothetical Argentine invasion.

In order to assess whether the Royal Navy has a suitable number of hulls, we need to assess what tasks Frigates and Destroyers are needed to perform. I can think of the following off the top of my head:

The Technology

In 1982 the type 42 Destoyers were used as up-front radar pickets ahead of the main force. It was in this role that HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet Missile, whilst acting as a radar picket along with her sister ships HMS Coventry and HMS Glasgow. The Type 965 air surveillance radar carried by the Type 42‘s in 1982 had a reasonable range of 230 nautical miles, but was becoming obsolescent and was due to be replaced by the more advanced Type 1022 system with a range of 225 nm. But using their radars three ships could still provide a reasonable radar screen, ahead of the main force. True, HMS Sheffield was hit, but that was partly due to her radar being ineffective at an unfortunate moment, and in addition, better to lose a destroyer than a carrier.

Fast Forward to 2012, and the Royal Navy has three Type 45 Destroyers in commission having passed all sea trials, with another – HMS Dragon – due to be commissioned in Spring 2012. The Type 45’s use a SAMPSON air surveillance radar, far in advance of anything that the Royal Navy possessed in 1982. It has been reported that SAMPSON is so effective, that in exercises with the US Navy a Type 45 Destroyer was asked to switch it off as it was ‘inhibiting training’. Specifications for SAMPSON are hard to come by, the best I can find is a range of 400 kilometres, which translates to around 250 miles. But apparently the picture is much more detailed, the false-alarm ratio is much lower, and it is all-round more effective.

In 1982 the Royal Navy could only deploy two of its new Type 22 Class Frigates, carrying Sea Wolf close range missile system. Both of these carried the original GWS-25 conventional launch system, fired using type 967/968 radar combinations. The rest of the Task Force’s Frigates and Destroyers were only armed with obsolete Sea Slug and Sea Cat systems. The Royal Navy’s Type 23 Frigates now fire vertical launch Sea Wolf, controlled by Type 996 radar. A combination of SAMPSON/Sea Viper and Type 996/VLS Sea Wolf is far in advance of what could be offered in 1982, especially when we consider that the Argentine Navy and Air Force’s equipment has hardly improved.

In an ironic sense, the likely lack of an aircraft carrier would release a couple of escort vessels from air defence duties, although the same role would still need to be performed escorting the amphibious group, or any other valuable or vulnerable group of ships in the Task Force. In a similar manner, ships would have to provide initial air defence for any invasion and subsequent landing zone, before Rapier could become effective – much as in 1982.

One problem I identified back in 2009 was the presence in the Argentine fleet of 13 Excoet equipped Destroyers and Frigates. One would hope that the advanced Type 45 and Type 23 technology would prove to be more than a match for this – and any Exocet equipped Super Etendards – but it does show up a shortcoming in anti-surface capability in the Royal Navy today. Exocet has a range of 43 miles, or 110 if fitted with a booster. This should be well within the range of SAMPSON in the long reach and Type 996 in the short distance, but do we have enough ships to provide defence against so many possible threats? However, since 1982 all RN ships DO have improved Close in weapons defences – be it Goalkeeper, Phalanx or Chaff.

The Type 23 Frigates carry Harpoon anti-surface missiles, which have a range of up to 136 miles, depending on which variant is carried (which I am struggling to find out). Hence Harpoon seems to outrange Exocet by some distance, but following the withdrawal of the Batch 3 Type 22 Frigates, there are only 13 Type 23’s in service. Not all of them would be available at any one time thanks to standing commitments and refits, and when we consider that at least a couple would be required for close-in air defence, only a few at most would be available for forming a surface-action group to combat the Argentine Exocet ships. The Typ3 45 Destroyers are designed to carry Harpoon as an upgrade – there is even space in the ops room for the operators desk – but they do not currently carry them. With the decomissioning of the four Batch 3 Type 22’s, I wonder if their Harpoon launchers and systems could be utilised? The the MOD would only need to purchase two new systems. It depends if the Type 22’s are to be scrapped or sold as going concerns.

The Argentine Navy does have a paucity of Submarines compared to 1982, fielding only three diesel electrics of TR-1700 and Type 209 class. If the performance of the Argentine submarine arm in 1982 is anything to go by, the Royal Navy need not fear too much. The Royal Navy has an expertise in anti-submarine warfare, a legacy of the Cold War. However, of the 13 Type 23 Frigates, only a number of them actually carry towed-array sonars for anti-submarine work – this could be something of a problem. All Frigates or Destroyers carry Merlin or Lynx helicopters for ASW, which one should imagine would provide good defence against submarines. However, the lack of an aircraft carrier might inhibit the carrying of further ASW Sea Kings as in 1982. In the same manner, a lack of AEW might be a problem.

In terms of naval gunfire support, the Royal Navy learnt a big lesson in 1982 – you can never have too many ships with a traditional main gun. As a result the Type 22 Class was modified to carry a 4.5 inch gun, and the Type 23 and Type 45 Classes all have the up to date Mark 8 4.5 inch gun. At Navy Days 2009 I was informed that the 4.5 inch gun direction actually has an offset built in, as in the Falklands it was found that the fire was too accurate – pretty much putting roundsi nto the same holes. Obviously for harrassing fire this is no good. A Task Force in the South Atlantic should be able to provide reasonable gun fire support, but a lack of Tomahawk LAM equipped surface ships is lamentable – although these are carried on our SSN’s, more of them on surface ships would really put the fear up the Argentines.

The verdict

Technologically, the Royal Navy has progressed in leaps and bounds since 1982, and can offer up radar and weapon systems that should more than prove a match for anything it might encounter in the South Atlantic. The only problem I can identify is a lack of hulls. With advances in technology, the number of ships keeps getting cut to subsidise the improved systems on each hull. With Four Type 45 Destroyers, three Type 42’s, and 13 Type 23’s, that gives only 20 Escort vessels in total. We would do very well indeed to get ten or twelve of them into action for a task force. Whilst one Type 45 Destroyer could probably do the job of two Type 42’s, if it is hit, it can’t do the job of any. A ship can only be in one place at any one time, and hence the politicians and admirals boasts that advances in technology make a lack of ships irrelevant should be treated with caution.

Ggiven that the Argentine Air Force and Navy haven’t really progressed since 1982, I wouldn’t imagine that any Type 45’s or Type 23’s down south would encounter too many problems. The problem would be getting enough of them there in the first place to do everything that we would need them to do. In recent months the RN has struggled to have ONE escort available in coastal waters alone. It could indeed be a close run thing once wear and tear and possible losses come into play.

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