At 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom and 4,000 miles from the nearest airbase at Ascension Island, only the Royal Navy could attempt to liberate the Falkland Islands should Argentina invade. Such was the advice that the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, gave to the Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, in the House of Commons on 31 March 1982. He went on to tell her, robustly and against other military opinions, that should the Argentines invade, he believed that the islands could and should be liberated. Mrs Thatcher fortunately agreed as did the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Terence Lewin, when he returned from abroad. On 2 April, Argentina duly invaded the Falkland Islands. They also illegally occupied South Georgia.
Within five days of this meeting, a major naval carrier and amphibious group had sailed fully loaded from the UK aiming to join up with another naval group exercising off Gibraltar. A large fleet of Merchant Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships was rapidly gathered to support the Royal Navy and the Landing Force. The latter was made up mainly from the Royal Navy’s 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. The brigade was soon reinforced by two battalions of the Army’s Parachute Regiment, some Blues and Royals and extra Royal Artillery detachments. The RAF set about creating an important air-bridge to Ascension Island which became a vital half-way house for equipping, re-organising, training and planning.
The whole operation, codenamed Operation Corporate, was mounted by Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse from the RN Fleet Headquarters at Northwood, Middlesex. He then commanded the Task Force. It was the first real conflict the Royal Navy had been called upon to fight since WWII and the first major British operation to use satellite communications to any extent.
South Georgia was indisputably British and a force under command of Captain Brian Young, Royal Navy, liberated it without loss of life. In doing so an Argentine submarine was badly damaged by a RN helicopter’s missile.
A naval blockade of the Falkland Islands might have been successful in defeating the occupying troops, but with winter approaching and the possibility that the Aircraft Carriers might not be able to operate continuously, there was a risk that a blockade could be broken. Furthermore, with an extended blockade, the Islanders would probably suffer more than the enemy. It was, therefore, decided to liberate the islands by mid-June using ground forces. To ensure time for the troops to deploy, 3 Commando Brigade would have to be landed by late-May. Hopefully, the Army’s 5 Brigade would be made available in time to support them. To gain the intelligence needed for planning the British attack, Special Forces needed to be inserted on about 1 May. All, of course, was subject to the diplomatic situation. The Government always hoped that the Argentines would withdraw peacefully.
Before the landings could be made in reasonable safety, it was vital to achieve a degree of sea and air supremacy in the landing area.
Vice Admiral Peter Herbert, the Flag Officer Submarines, quickly achieved surface and sub-surface supremacy by deploying HMS Conqueror and four other nuclear powered submarines. With the Belgrano sunk, there was little further threat from Argentine warships.
Achievement of air supremacy was less simple since the Argentine airforces would not be easily drawn into battle before the landings. Nevertheless, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, in command of the Carrier Battle Group, sailed ahead of the Amphibious Task Group. He made significant efforts to prevent their airforces having free rein over the islands. At the same time, his ships and Sea Harriers harassed the occupying troops. Many new and unproven weapons systems and equipment were employed and suitable tactics quickly developed. Much ingenuity was used with, for instance, anti-submarine helicopters acting as Exocet missile decoys.
The Royal Air Force deployed Vulcan bomber and Victor tanker aircraft to Ascension Island and initiated raids against Stanley airfield. While not very successful in bombing terms, they were a spectacular success in terms of airmanship at long range and brought home to the Argentines just how potentially vulnerable were their own mainland targets.
The encouragingly successful amphibious advance force operation on Pebble Island, using troops from the Special Air Service, destroyed eleven aircraft.
Because of an acute shortage of helicopters for a Landing Force of the size envisaged, the landings had to be by boat. Commodore Michael Clapp, in command of the Amphibious Task Group, and Brigadier Julian Thompson, commanding the Landing Force, chose San Carlos Water where there was little risk of swell or surf. This was essential to allow the safe loading of landing craft and mexeflote rafts from the Ro-Ro ships’ ramps and then landing men and equipment onto the beaches by day and night. The water was deep enough for the largest ships while the land around offered suitable sites for a fuel farm, ammo and stores dumps, a field hospital and a harrier pad.
Unfortunately, the necessity of using San Carlos Water meant the landings had to be too far up-threat for comfort. This gave the Argentine aircraft ample time on task but little time for our Sea Harriers to remain overhead as Combat Air Patrol. Nevertheless, between them, the Sea Harriers and escorts severely reduced the numbers of aircraft and the morale of the Argentine aircrew. Speed in establishing the Landing Force ashore would, however, be vital.
Unfortunately, it also meant that the landing force would have a long march to battle near Stanley over very difficult terrain with little vehicular transport and far too few helicopters.
The RN escorts were armed only for the open waters of the Eastern Atlantic. Surrounded by land, they had too little warning of attack and their radars could not cope with the land echoes. They were almost defenceless in such waters. Nevertheless, they manoeuvred to take the brunt of the bombing. While protecting the landings, three escorts were sunk and several were damaged together with some RFA ships. Not one Merchant Navy ship was damaged and, very fortunately, no RFA Landing Ship Logistic (LSL) was sunk. The logistic position was so tight that the loss of only one LSL might have prevented further military action.
Thanks in very large part to the bravery of the RN’s Mine Clearance Divers who, although untrained for the job, removed some eleven unexploded bombs from ships, not one item of the Landing Force’s ammunition, fuel or other stores was lost to enemy action.
Two RM helicopters and three aircrew were lost during the assault. Remarkably, however, no other marine or soldier was lost. Within six days, the whole Landing Force together with almost all its equipment was safely ashore and ready to advance to contact. The battle for Darwin and Goose Green began.
When Major General Jeremy Moore and 5 Army Brigade landed, there was low cloud over San Carlos Water and little risk of air attack. 5 Bde consisted of a Battalion each of the Scots Guards, Welsh Guards and Ghurkha Rifles with additional Royal Artillery and Sapper support. 3 Cdo Bde had already established a forward base at Teal Inlet on the north coast which was being re-supplied by the LSLs. Again, all the men, ammunition, fuel and stores were landed safely but 5 Bde had arrived without transport. When the Atlantic Conveyor was sunk three Chinook heavy lift as well as eight Wessex support helicopters were lost. The overland transport problem was dire but many islanders gave invaluable help with tractors, trailers and local knowledge.
Before assaulting the Argentine defences around Stanley, Major General Moore decided to open a second southern front close to the enemy lines. This required a forward base at Fitzroy. A large amount of ammunition, fuel and stores, together many soldiers were taken forward by a long sea passage at night from San Carlos Water.
On 8th June, when the sky cleared and air attacks restarted, HMS Plymouth, the RFA LSLs Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad were damaged and the landing craft F4 was sunk. Unfortunately, some Welsh Guards and Sappers had remained onboard Sir Galahad but almost all the equipment had been lifted ashore together with a Field Ambulance team, four Rapier missile units and much aviation fuel.
Throughout the advance to Stanley, the LSLs and RN support helicopters provided the main logistic support to the land forces. A huge sea-lift reinforced the whole operation. 44 Royal Navy manned ships took part while over 65 civilian manned ships were involved. RN Minesweepers cleared areas so that the escorts could provide naval gunfire support at night, thus allowing the Royal Artillery to redeploy and re-supply their guns in darkness.
The misfortune at Fitzroy necessitated a delay of two days. However, both brigades were now well established with well-stocked forward bases and the final land assault could begin. The Argentine garrison surrendered on 14 June but the possibility of hostilities continued at sea and in the air.
The cost of failed diplomacy had been considerable. In all, the British services lost 253 lives and many wounded. 3 Islanders were sadly killed by gunfire.
The maritime forces arguably had the hardest fight. In all, about 170 men were killed at sea, of whom 85 were RN while 18 were MN. In addition, over 65 other servicemen were killed at sea or in naval helicopters. 4 escorts were sunk and 7 badly damaged. A further 2 ships (1 RFA and 1 MN) were sunk and 4 damaged.
In the land battles, over 63 men lost their lives.
In the air, the Royal Navy lost 6 Sea Harriers and 11 helicopters. The RAF lost 4 Harrier GR3s while the Royal Marines lost 3 helicopters and the Army one. With the Atlantic Conveyor, 3 Chinook and 8 Wessex helicopters sank.
The Argentine lost over 60 aircraft and several ships as well as over 900 lives.
Protected by a strong garrison, the Falkland Islanders are now enjoying greater security and affluence under a government of their choice. Long may it last.