D Day - The British Task Force lands at San Carlos
D Day - The British Task Force lands at San Carlos - 21st May 1982
A group of officers from 3 Commando Brigade on Ascension Island, in conjunction with Commodore Mike Clapp, Commodore of Amphipious Warfare and his staff along with Brigadier Julian Thompson and his staff had started the detailed planning of the landing in late April when it became obvious that a land action was unavoidable. The first question was of course, where? It was initially decided that the landings needed to be unopposed, in order to ensure their success, particularly when considering the length of the supply chain that the troops would be on the sticky end of. The secondary consideration was that Stanley was the key, whomever had control of the town effectively controlled the islands. These contradictory requirements gave rise to a short list of possible sites, Cow Bay and Volunteer Beach, which were undefended, and directly north of the capital; Port Salvador, a vast expanse of water leading directly to Douglas Settlement and Teal Inlet, again largely undefended and a huge area to hide the vital ships in; the Bay of Harbours and Low Bay on Lafonia, the southern half of East Falkland, which although completely undefended, was a very open and exposed area; and finally, the San Carlos Water area with the towns of San Carlos to the South and Port San Carlos to the North, which had advantages and disadvantages both. Several areas of West Falkland were considered, but a landing there discounted as a second crossing would have been required against an alerted enemy.
The main drawback of the San Carlos Water area was the presence of the Argentine forces at two locations, firstly some 40 troops in the town of Port San Carlos itself, and secondly, overlooking the main approach route along Falkland Sound, there was a 20 man radio-equipped Observation Post atop Fanning Head. A secondary consideration was the fact the area was on the opposite side of East Falkland to the objective, Stanley. So why then was this area eventually chosen? Simply, the British did not just need a beachead, they needed one that could be defended while the necessary stocks were built up. The harbour area was surrounded by Sussex Mountains to the West and South, Verde Mountains to the East and the hills above Port San Carlos reaching to Fanning Head to the North. Any air attacks would have to approach from below the level of the mountains to avoid the air defences, and once over the high ground would have a very short time, under fire, to identify, select and strike their targets. The very nature of the ground surrounding the landing area would offer excellent defensive position against any ground based counter-attack, and the location meant that the British Forces could breakout of the bridgehead in virtually any direction, thus keeping the Argentine commanders guessing.
The first step in preparing the way took place on 14 May with the SAS raid on the airfield at Pebble Island. This destroyed the Argentine outpost that could have detected and attacked the fleet of landing and support ships as it approached Falkland Sound. During 19 May the troops from the huge liner Canberra were deployed to the landing ships that would take them ashore. The fleet included the amphibious landing ships HMS Fearless with 40 Commando Royal Marines aboard and HMS Intrepid with 3 Parachute Regiment aboard. Other troop forces involved were 42 Commando still aboard the liner Canberra, 45 Commando aboard the RFA Stromness and 2 Parachute Regiment aboard the merchant vessel Norland. During this preparation phase for the landing, the SAS and SBS troops who had been operating from HMS Hermes until now were also helicoptered aboard various ships which would become their operating bases for the rest of the conflict. On one of these flights an 846 Squadron Sea King crashed into the sea with a crew of three and 27 troops on board. Twenty of the troops perished in the crash, along with one of the Sea Kings crew, eighteen of the troops being from D Squadron of 22 Regiment SAS. The other two who were killed were a Forward Air Control team working with the SAS, an RAF Flight Lieutenant and a Corporal from the Royal Signals. Flight Lieutenant Garth Hawkins was to be the only RAF casualty of the war. In total, 45 British servicemen had been killed so far in the campaign, which was now approaching its climax.
On 20 May, the final reconnaissance reports from SBS and SAS parties already in the area were received and the fleet began to move toward Falkland Sound. HMS Antrim and HMS Ardent drove steadily ahead to undertake special tasks, and the landing force steamed in single file behind HMS Plymouth as they entered the mouth of the Sound. For the many men crammed aboard the ships, a very long day was about to begin.
At around 0130 hours on 21 May a small landing party from the SBS was landed by Wessex helicopter to reconnoitre the Argentine position on Fanning Head, which was equipped with two 106 mm anti-tank guns and two 81 mm mortars. The Wessex then mapped the area for the main force. Shortly afterwards, as the reconnaissance force approached the identified positions, the main force of SBS troops were landed by another two Wessex. The troops were landed on the landward side of the peak of Fanning head out of sight and earshot of the Argentine troops who were facing out to sea. Included in the main force was a Royal Marine interpreter, Captain Rod Bell, who was equipped with a loudspeaker in order to attempt negotiations for the surrender of the position. HMS Antrim was now in position in Falkland Sound below Fanning Head and began to give covering fire to the SBS troops with its two 4.5 inch guns. The Argentines began to move away from the area of shell fall, and Captain Bell told them via loudspeaker they were surrounded. The Argentine troops began to move toward the SBS positions, so the British troops opened fire. Captain Bell asked for a cease fire from the SBS commander, and called on the Argentines to surrender again. This time they opened fire by way of a reply, and the SBS started to inflict serious casualties on the remaining force. One last time, Captain Bell again called for their surrender, this time to be greeted by white flags. Six Argentine troops surrendered, and three more were injured. A later search of the area by 40 Commando revealed ten or eleven more bodies hidden in the rough ground. With this important position nullified, the SBS troops had a grandstand view of the landing operation taking place in the waters below them.
Two other diversionary raids were taking place to confuse the enemy as to the actual landing place. HMS Glamorgan was operating in Berkeley Sound, shelling positions around Stanley, while further down Falkland Sound, HMS Ardent was also in action. The SAS were carrying out a major raid against Goose Green and Darwin, and Ardent's guns were giving the force covering fire. The result of all this activity was that the main landings were carried out unopposed, and it was not until late in the morning that any real resistance was met.
At 0440 hrs local time, sixteen landing craft carrying troops from 2 Para and 40 Commando from the Norland and HMS Fearless passed by Fanning Head, where the SBS force were still in action against the Argentine outpost. 2 Para landed first on Blue Beach 1 just south of San Carlos on the Eastern side of San Carlos water. The paratroops immediately set off for their objective, to dig in and prepare defensive positions overlooking the landings, on the Sussex Mountains to the south of the beaches. The threat they defended against was from the closest Argentine force of any size, that based at Goose Green. Just seven minutes after 2 Para, A Company of 40 Commando landed on Blue Beach 2 and set up a defensive postion half way up the beach. C Company 40 Commando landed next, passed through this position and headed into San Carlos settlement proper, where they met the settlement manager, Mr Pat Short. His reaction of "Oh, you've come then!" was an understatement typical of the phlegmatic islanders, and caused much amusement among the troops. Four armoured vehicles, two Scimitars and two Scorpions of the Blues and Royals also came ashore at this point. As with the soldiers of 2 Para to the South, 40 Commando climbed the Verde Mountains to the East of the settlement and dug in on the reverse slope, establishing observation posts along the tops.
The landing craft had returned to the fleet by this time, and were already embarking the next wave, 3 Para from HMS Intrepid and 45 Commando from the RFA Stromness. On the West side of San Carlos Water lay the abandoned whaling factory and harbour of Ajax Bay, which was designated Red Beach, the target for 45 Commando. The Ajax Bay buildings were to become the Field Hospital site for the remainder of the conflict, wounded personnel from both sides were taken there, and it is the proud claim of the hospital staff that of all the wounded who arrived, only one was to die after reaching the hospital, despite the primitive conditions. 3 Para were headed for Green Beach, just to the West of Port San Carlos on the Northern shore of San Carlos Water, where it was known some forty Argentine troops were to be in residence. Due to various cumulative delays and a broken down landing craft, both of these landings were taking place as dawn was breaking, in full daylight.
45 Commando came ashore to find no troops, in fact, no-one at all in the Ajax Bay area. For 3 Para, the reception was a surprising one. Warned by the SBS and SAS reconnaissance parties of an Argentine presence, it was something of a shock to find three civilians running down the beach waving white handkerchiefs to meet them. Settlement manager Mr Alan Miller, his son Philip and Ron Dickson had seen the ships approach, warned all the other houses by telephone, then decided to let the Paras know there were Argentine troops in town, as they did not know the SAS and others had already been there and seen them. Coincidentally, Alan Miller's wife, who was in the UK, had provided much of the local information that 3 Para were now putting to good use. Miller warned the Paras that the Argentine troops had concentrated in the Eastern side of the settlement, away from the landing area. The settlers went to work with a will to aid 3 Para, their supposedly broken down vehicles (whenever the Argentines had asked) suddenly springing into life and carrying supplies and ammunition all over the local area.
Now the troops were ashore and daylight had come to the area, the next phase of the landings began. Helicopters began ferrying artillery and anti-aircraft equipment ashore. 29 Commando Regiment established its 105 mm guns along the foot of the Sussex Mountains to the South, in support of 2 Para. The guns and missile units of the Rapier anti-aircraft units were carried by the eight Sea King HC4s of 846 Squadron flying from the RFA Fort Austin, which was acting as a helicopter carrier. By the end of this day, the helicopters were to lift 407 tons of equipment and supplies and 520 troops, a taste of the hard work the crews were to undertake right up until the surrender. Because of their relative delicacy, their were delays in setting up the Rapier anti-aircraft missile units, which meant that the landing areas were well equipped to meet a ground offensive, but less able to fight off any air attacks.
Soon after the lifts started the first set back for the British occured, due to a breakdown in communication. The delay of 3 Paras landings had not been reported to the helicopters carrying out the lifting tasks. A Sea King with an underslung load of mortar ammunition, along with a Gazelle from 3 Brigade's 656 Squadron C Flight on a reconnaissance mission came over Port San Carlos while the Paras were still clearing the settlement. The forty one Argentinians, under the command of Lieutenant Daniel Esteban of J Company, 25 Regiment, had moved to the east of the settlement and opened fire, causing the Sea King to drop its load and fly away over the bay at high speed. The Gazelle was hit in the engine and rotor however, and crashed into the water. The crew escaped from the sinking aircraft, but were shot in the water by an Argentine machine gunner. Sergeant Andy Evans was wounded but died after being picked up in a small boat bravely manned by some local men. The other crew member, Sergeant Eddie Candlish, was unhurt. A second Gazelle from C Flight arrived about 15 minutes later over the scene. The radio in the aircraft was not working properly and it is believed the pilot, Lieutenant Ken Francis and his crewman, Lance Corporal Brett Giffin were responding to an earlier call for reconnaissance over Port San Carlos. Their Gazelle was also mortally hit, but not before the crew had destroyed the Argentine's only rocket launcher, then crashed into a hill a mile east of the settlement, both of the crew members died of bullet wounds. The news of these events had still not reached the command ship when yet a third Gazelle entered the area. It was also hit by about ten rounds, but its pilot, Captain Robin Makeig-Jones, managed to turn away and escape. The loss of these aircraft produced a marked change in the British tactical use of these aircraft. Plotting artillery shoots and undertaking offensive armed operations were to be largely abandoned, the light helicopters being used for communications, transport and casualty evacuation for the remainder of the conflict.
The Argentinian troops then withdrew into the hills to the North-East of the settlement and escaped to Douglas Settlement after a four day march, where they were picked up by helicopter and taken to Stanley for debriefing. After the landings were completed, and the area was now secure, the twelve troop and supply ships entered Falkland Sound proper and San Carlos Water to unload their supplies of ammunition and food. This continued for the rest of the day while all the units dug in at their respective objectives. The landings had been a complete success but the force of ships was a large and vulnerable target, and the Argentine air forces, though initially slow to react, soon began a series of heavy attacks.
Around two hours after dawn the first air attacks occurred. A Pucara unwittingly flew over the SAS men returning from the raid on Goose Green, and was promptly shot down by a shoulder-launched Stinger missile. A second Pucara attacked some of the ships in Falkland Sound with cannons, but was deterred by the weight of defensive fire put up from the ships. The next attack came from an Aermacchi MB 339 flown by Lieutenant Crippa from Stanley on a routine reconnaissance flight. He attacked HMS Argonaut at very low level with cannon fire and rockets, causing minor damage and wounding three men. Having fired all his ammunition, Lt Crippa flew safely back to Stanley. The locally based aircraft never presented a serious threat to the ships of the Task Force, more to the troops ashore. The attack aircraft based in Argentina were quite another matter, and they were about to arrive in the landing area for the first time.
The first major Argentine air attacks against the British landing forces took place between 1030 and 1300 hrs local time. The first strike was made by Mirage fighters, but the main effort was to fall to the Skyhawk and Dagger fighter-bomber units of the Argentine Navy and Air Force. Grupo 4 and 5 de Caza equipped with A-4B and C Skyhawks, Grupo 6 de Caza with Daggers and Grupo 8 de Caza with Mirage IIIEAs of the Air Force alongside 3 Escuadrilla de Caza y Ataque with A-4Q Skyhawks of the Navy were to operate from Rio Gallegos and Rio Grande air bases on Tierra del Fuego for most of the rest of the war. To meet these attacks the British forces had a number of problems. HMS Hermes and Invincible were still forced to operate at some distance from the islands due to the threat of Exocet armed aircraft, and there were insufficient Harriers available to maintain permanent Combat Air Patrols over the landing zone at this range. The lack of Airborne Early Warning aircraft meant that a number of raids approached completely undetected, the radar picket ships were hampered by the high ground surrounding Falkland Sound, which crippled their effective detection range against very low flying aircraft. It was this same high ground that protected the landing force ships against the Exocet threat, as the weapon had severe limitations meaning it was unsuitable for use in such cluttered surroundings as the hills around the landing areas. When coupled with the fact that the Rapier missile units were still being deployed and tested, the first day after the landings were an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against the British that the Argentine's happily missed. With a traditional air defence system, in the NATO operational sense that is, unavailable to the commanders of the Task Force, the system they came up with was a series of compromises, but the 'May 21st Gunline' operated by the ships of the Royal Navy was to gain high praise from all who saw it in action.
At this point the Argentine aircrews who operated against the landing forces must be mentioned. In many histories written since the war it has been said that the British judged the fighting force and efficiency of the Argentine Navy and Army more or less accurately, but all agree that the fighting spirit and sheer agressiveness of the Argentine pilots was woefully underestimated. Considering the terrain surrounding the landing force, the firepower available to it and the inadequate tactics and weapons foisted upon the Argentine pilots by their superiors, anyone who witnessed the attacks could not fail to be impressed by the panache, skill and bloody-minded determination with which the Air Force and Navy pilots pressed home their attacks. Several often-used photographs bear witness to this, aircraft flying below mast height, dodging between ships, evading heavy fire to press home an attack that often ended in failure because the bombs they were dropping did not have time to arm their fuses in the short time they were in free-fall from the aircraft that delivered them. If the result of this shortfall in bomb fusing had been recognised early enough, it is more than possible that the number of damaged ships that would have become lost ships could have forced a withdrawal or a negotiated settlement at least. It is interesting to note that most of the bombs were British made Mk 17 1,000 lb free-fall bombs. Once the attack was delivered, the now fully alerted missile systems of the ships and shore based units, and the waiting Harriers overhead, had to be evaded, often unsuccessfully, largely due to poor planning rather than any failure on the part of the aircrew per se. When the number of aircrew lost in these operations is taken into account, the fact that there was little if any fall-off in the determination of the attacks is no small wonder in itself, showing that the morale of the crews remained high, and indeed their spirit was a true reflection of their skill.
The attacks of 21 May took place with no real coordination, a factor that was to dog Argentine air operations throughout the conflict. The aircraft would normally be in flights of four or six and they would mainly come in low over West Falkland, taking advantage of the cover offered by the terrain before attacking the warships in Falkland Sound. If they had been better coordinated, it is possible that they may have been able to swamp the British defences. On this important day, the gunline of defending warships consisted of HMS Antrim, Ardent, Argonaut, Brilliant, Broadsword, Plymouth and Yarmouth. The anti-aircraft weapons they had to defend the landings with, ranged from the brand-new Sea Wolf missile system to Second World War vintage Bofors guns and machine guns lashed to the railings. These were supported by the Blowpipe shoulder-launched short-range missiles and light automatic weapons of the units ashore, but the brunt of the defences fell to the Royal Navy this day.
HMS Antrim, Ardent, Argonaut and Broadsword were all attacked in the first air strikes. HMS Broadsword was attacked by cannon fire but only four men were injured. HMS Antrim was hit hardest, with cannon fire ploughing into her superstructure injuring eight men, one of whom was blinded. The Wessex helicopter, nicknamed 'Humphrey' and now in the Fleet Air Arm Museum, the same one that had performed so well at South Georgia and Fanning Head earlier in the day, was riddled, and never flew again. Worse was to come, a 1,000 lb bomb penetrated the ship's stern passed through the pyrotechnic locker and a Sea Slug magazine, being deflected by a steel pipe from hitting two Sea Slug missiles which contained nearly two and a half tons of explosive, before it finally came to rest in the toilets without exploding, but causing what was later described as 'some concern' to an occupant of this particular room. A second bomb then struck the bow of the ship, but luckily because its trajectory was so flat, having been delivered at such low level, the bomb skipped straight off and exploded in the water a short distance from the Antrim. Despite this damage, the control and repair parties aboard the ship were superbly trained and led, meaning that HMS Antrim was able to stay on station, assisting with the coordination of later anti-aircraft efforts by the fleet and using her guns in defence.
During these attacks four of the Argentine aircraft were shot down. HMS Broadsword hit a Mirage with a Sea Wolf missile in the first air attack and three patrolling Sea Harriers shot down a Pucara on its way to the landing zone with cannon fire. Four Skyhawks that had just attacked HMS Ardent were chased by the same Sea Harriers over West Falkland before two of the flight were both shot down with Sidewinder missiles.
The next wave of air attacks started early in the afternoon and lasted for just under an hour. HMS Argonaut was the first British warship to be hit this time. Argonaut was in the mouth of San Carlos Water conducting operations to get her three wounded men ashore, steaming North to give the Wessex helicopter wind over the deck, when six Skyhawks came in over West Falkland. The ship shot down one aircraft but was hit by two bombs in reply. Neither of the 1,000 lb bombs exploded, but two Sea Cat missiles were hit by the bomb in the forward magazine and exploded, causing severe internal damage and killing two men. The second bomb came to rest in the boiler room, knocking out the ship's propulsion. Unable to steam, HMS Argonaut was towed into San Carlos Water for repairs, which, with the crew working flat out, were to take over a week.
Around this time HMS Brilliant was attacked with cannon fire. Several shells penetrated the thin skin of the superstructure and exploded inside the ship. Three men in the Operations Room were injured, but damage to the internal wiring of the warship put the Sea Wolf anti-aircraft missile system and the sonar out of action, along with a number of other computer systems. Again, the excellent training of the Royal Navy damage control parties came to the fore, all of this damage being repaired within twenty-four hours. The worst attacks of this second round fell upon the frigate HMS Ardent. The Argentine aircraft had changed tack and were now coming directly up Falkland Sound from the South-West. Ardent was in the middle of Falkland Sound at the Southern end, having returned from the successful operation at Goose Green, and was the first ship the Argentine pilots saw as they ran in on their attacks. It was hoped that Ardent's position would force approaching air attacks to split up, instead, this position concentrated the brunt of the attacks upon her.
Three Daggers were flying low up Falkland Sound and caught HMS Ardent in a disabled state. With an inexplicable fault in the Sea Cat missile system, and the 4.5 inch gun unable to bear on the aircraft, the defence of the ship was reduced to the 20 mm Oerlikon cannons and machine guns strapped to the ship's rails. The Argentine pilots took steady aim, and attacked from a little higher than previously. The lead aircraft dropped two bombs, both of which hit Ardent, one exploding in the hangar, causing a secondary explosion in the torpedo tubes. The second bomb entered the auxiliary machinery room but failed to explode. The remaining aircraft dropped six more bombs, all of which missed, one of which hit the water and skipped over the ship passing between its masts. Given the damage and her vulnerable condition, HMS Ardent was ordered to steam North to the protection of the other ships.
As she was heading back she came under two further attacks. In total seven bombs hit Ardent and exploded, and a further two hit but did not explode. The fires in the stern were now out of control, the damage control parties sent aft after the first attack were killed in the second and third. The order to abandon ship was given, and HMS Yarmouth came to Ardent's assistance, manoeuvring her stern against Ardent's bow in an incredibly brave rescue. Most of the survivors got off this way, but three men had been blown into the water in the attacks. Lieutenant Stephen Rideout, Ardent's doctor, was picked up by another ship while the other two were rescued by a medical evacuation helicopter operating in the area by chance. A man who was to become a hero in every sense of the word later in the conflict, Surgeon-Commander Rick Jolly, although not trained in air-sea rescue and lacking the proper equipment, went down the helicopter's winch-line twice to pick up the survivors. HMS Ardent finally burned herself out and sank the next day, twenty-two of her crew had lost their lives in the attacks. One of those wounded was John Leake, the ship's NAAFI manager, who had manned a machine gun during the air attacks, and is proven to have damaged one Skyhawk so badly that it crashed at Stanley airfield while attempting an emergency landing there.
Despite the tragic cost of the operation, at the end of D-Day the all-important landings had proceeded to plan and had been entirely sucessful. 3,000 British troops and 1,000 tons of supplies were now ashore. Only one of the air attacks had made a concerted effort to enter San Carlos Water and bomb the supply ships there, and there had been no casualties either on these ships or ashore. The cost to the Royal Navy was high, out of the warships in Falkland Sound only HMS Plymouth and Yarmouth were unscathed. It is thought that thirteen enemy aircraft were shot down, nine by Sea Harriers, three by the ships and the last one by the SAS. Logistics were now the vital mission, getting all the supplies and personnel in postion to begin the next stage of the land war, the breakout from the beachhead and the march on Stanley.