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.