The recapture of South Georgia
On the 3rd April 1982 23 Royal Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Keith Mills RM, surrendered to the Argentinians after putting up a brave resistance in the face of air and naval support, armed as they were with only infantry weapons. The Marines did not lose a single man in the action, but destroyed two helicopters and did severe damage to the ARA Guerrico, a frigate operating in support of the Argentine Marines attacking Grytviken.
Given that there was still a small hope of the conflict being resolved in the United Nations, the recapture of South Georgia was seen as the first logical step in recovering all the British territories in the South Atlantic. It was hoped that a successful operation on the remote and forbidding island may give the Argentine leadership pause for thought, and prove that the British Task Force now sailing south and approaching the Falkland area rapidly, was serious in both capability and intent.
Therefore, on the 7th April Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse was ordered to plan the islands recapture. It was known that the Argentine forces that remained on South Georgia were based at Leith and Grytviken, and had limited if any naval and no air support. Because of the terrain of South Georgia, described as a cross between the volcanic areas of Iceland and the dark side of the Moon, along with the frequently inhospitable and dangerous climate, it was also known that the Argentine troops did not stray far from these places. The Argentine force was commanded by a naval engineering officer named Lt. Commander Alfredo Astiz. Astiz had a poor reputation as an officer and a military commander, but to be fair the forces under him were insufficient to properly occupy and control the whole island. As a result, members of the British Antartic Survey (BAS) and 2 women from ITV, Cindy Buxton and Annie Price, who were already on assignment for the 'Survival' nature programme on the island, had remained at large and undetected.
This intelligence had been gathered by a remarkable platform, HMS Endurance, known to many as Red Plum due to her ice patrol ship colours. Under the command of Captain Nick Barker RN, Endurance had been ordered to keep a military presence in the area. Sensibly, as she was unarmed, Endurance was to keep a low profile 60 miles out to sea from South Georgia, monitor Argentine communications and send back intelligence reports to the UK. Her popular and inventive commander had actually intended to close the range on the damaged Guerrico on the 3 April to finish the task started by the Royal Marines ashore by using her Wasp helicopters armed with AS.12 missiles, but Whitehall had other ideas, and demanded that self-preservation was the order of the day. Endurance was up against a variety of ships, some known to be armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, as well as a submarine threat of unknown quantity or quality, and this is where the resourceful Captain Barker really came into his own as a force. He had been the commander of HMS Arrow, the first British ship fitted with Exocet, and knew the limitations of the weapon well. He was also very experienced as a sailor in the difficult conditions of the area, and knew many of the Argentinian seamen he was now forced to fight personally. His knowledge meant that the Endurance not only carried out her orders, but by playing a protracted game of cat-and-mouse with the opposition, managed to maintain contact with the 2 women and the BAS members still at liberty. Endurance avoided contact with the Argentinians by hiding in the numerous icebergs surrounding the islands, not only masking the ships presence with their bulk, a difficult thing to do with a bright red vessel, but also making a missile attack against the Plum difficult if not impossible.
The plan to recapture the island had now been formulated, under the codename Operation 'Paraquet'. The word is an early way of spelling 'parakeet', although it was changed unofficially almost immediately Operation 'Paraquat', a form of weed-killer!
Task Force 317
On the 10th April Task Group 317.9 set sail from Ascension Island to begin Operation 'Paraquet'. The force included the destoyers HMS Antrim and HMS Plymouth and the tanker RFA Tidespring. The commander of the Task Group allocated to the recapture was Antrim's captain, Captain Brian Young DSO RN.
The troops chosen to recapture the island were from the Special Air Service Regiment, the Special Boat Squadron and the Royal Marines. 4 troops of D Squadron SAS and 2 Section SBS, a total of some 60 men, plus the operational commanders were aboard HMS Antrim. Also embarked were two Naval Gun-Fire Support (NGS) parties on the Antrim. On board RFA Tidespring was M Company of 42 Commando Royal Marines, the whole force being under the tactical command of Major Guy Sheridan RM, second in command of 42 Commando.
M Company had had an interesting journey southwards. When 42 Commando left their barracks at Bickleigh just outside Plymouth on 8 April to sail down to the Falklands on board SS Canberra, M Company stayed behind hiding in the gymnasium. They were forbidden to phone their wives, and two days later, on 10 April, they flew from RAF Lyneham to Ascension Island where they joined the troops from the SAS and SBS.
On 14 April, having been able to stay out of the Argentines' way, HMS Endurance rendezvoused with the Task Force 1,000 miles to the north of South Georgia. Several members of the BAS team had been helicoptered on board Endurance, and the scientists briefed the troops on the Argentines' strengths and locations.
On 19 April, the British SSN HMS Conqueror, which had been in the area for 2 days on anti-shipping patrol, moved in to examine the north of the island under orders to patrol off South Georgia to prevent any Argentine reinforcement of the island. On the 20th of April a Handley Page Victor tanker flew from Ascension on a reconnaissance flight, an unusual role for the converted bomber. Neither this flight nor HMS Conqueror detected any Argentine ships around the islands.
Major Sheridan needed detail reconnaissance of the Leith and Grytviken areas, the suspected enemy locations, to determine the exact strengths and dispositions of the Argentine troops. This operation would be carried out by patrols from the SAS and SBS. It was felt that the primary objective would be Grytviken, as Leith obviously housed a smaller force. A reconnaissance operation was planned for 15 men of Mountain Troop D Sqn 22 SAS, who were now aboard Endurance, to land by helicopter on the Fortuna Glacier to the north of Leith, then proceed via Husvik and Stromness to Leith itself. At the same time, 2 Section SBS on board Antrim would land by helicopter in Hound Bay to the south east and make their way gradually via Moraine Fjord to Grytviken. The Officer Commanding M Company 42 Commando, Captain Chris Nunn RM, was to form a quick-reaction force (QRF) to land as and where required from RFA Tidespring. The BAS scientists warned the troops that Fortuna Glacier was likely to be a hazardous landing area, as it was often swept by blizzards and high winds during the winter, and events were to prove the scientists right.
The Argentines reacted to the southward procession of the small group of ships by sending a strong platoon of 40 additional Marines to the island, the obvious target of the group. The Argentine Navy operated two ex-US Navy Guppy Class submarines, and one of these, the Santa Fe, transported the troops to South Georgia. She managed to slip past the maritime surveillance patrols being carried out by RAF Nimrods operating from Ascension Island using Victor K2 tanker support. These surveillance patrols were carried out between 20 and 25 April to give early warning of hostile naval movements, and swept the area from South Georgia to the Argentine mainland. These patrols were extremely risky, as the aircraft were completely alone, in a hostile area over largely deserted ocean. Any failure of the aircraft would have probably meant the loss of the crew in the icy South Atlantic waters.
Ice and snow
Before Santa Fe could land her troops the British Task Force was off South Georgia. The first order of business was to land the SAS mountain troop onto the Fortuna Glacier using 3 Wessex helicopters. A reconnaissance was made of the glacier at first light on 21 April by the radar-equipped Wessex HAS 3 helicopter from HMS Antrim and, although there was some wind and driving rain, conditions seemed suitable for the operation. The Wessex 3 returned to pick up four SAS men, and the Wessex HAS 5s from RFA Tidespring landed alternately on Antrim's deck to embark more. The plan was for the radar of the Wessex 3 to lead the 5s up onto the glacier by radar. The operation had to be abandoned after they encountered thick low cloud, driving rain and snow storms in Possession Bay. After some hours the weather improved, and a second attempt was made - the helicopters climbed onto the glacier in swirling low cloud. The visibility and navigation problems were made worse by frequent driving squalls of snow and sudden changes in wind speed and direction. Nevertheless, the three helicopters reached the landing zone and delivered their troops and their equipment. They returned to the ships by way of Possession and Antarctic Bays to avoid being sighted by Argentine observers.
During the night of 21 April the barometer fell sharply to 960 millibars and a force 10 snowstorm, which gusted to 70 knots, blew all night. The windchill factor on the glacier was dangerously high. The wind blew away the troops' shelters, and after nearly 24 hours in the blizzard and intense cold, the Mountain Troop men - under Captain John Hamilton of the Green Howards - radioed at 11:00 on 22 April that they had been unable to move off the glacier, that they could not survive another 12 hours and that frostbite cases or 'environmental casualties' were imminent.
It was decided to extract them using the same formation as before. Conditions were much worse than the day before, with swirling low clouds and driving snowstorms sweeping across the glacier. The wind was very changeable, gusting to 70 knots and then dropping unexpectedly to ten, which caused problems of severe mechanical turbulence over the mountains. It was decided to leave the Wessex 5s orbiting in Antarctic Bay while the Wessex 3 tried three times to get onto the glacier. The 5s landed on a spit of land to conserve fuel. In the end, all three helicopters had to return to their ships to refuel.
A second attempt was made immediately, and this was successful. The three helicopters climbed the glacier, sighted the smoke ignited by the troops to indicate their position and wind direction, and landed there during a welcome break in the weather. But as the SAS men were boarding, the wind blew strongly again and whipped up the snow. One of the Tidespring's Wessex 5s, call sign YA, had been the first to load troops and was ready for take-off, and so the pilot decided to lift immediately. As he took off and moved forward, he lost all external reference in the 'white out' and crashed, skidding for some 50 yards and ending up on his side. The other two helicopters had now embarked their troops, so they lifted and landed next to the crashed YA where they loaded its aircrew and soldiers. Half were taken onto the other Wessex 5, call sign YF, which dumped fuel to carry the extra load as did the Wessex 3, which had the other half.
Visibility by this time was practically zero, and the wind and snow had not abated. With the survivors on board, the Wessex 3, call sign 406, took off with YF following astern and they made their way down the glacier. Some seconds later, they traversed a small ridge, YF was seen to flare violently and strike the top. It rolled over onto its side and could not be contacted by radio. The overloaded 406 had to return to the ship some 30 miles away to the north. The passengers were disembarked and medical supplies and blankets were taken on board. The Wessex 3 then flew back towards the glacier, but the foul weather prevented landing. Contact was however made by radio with the crashed YF, and it was confirmed that there were no serious casualties.
The Wessex 3 returned to Antrim to wait for a break in the weather. About an hour later an opportunity presented itself, and 406 flew back to the glacier and managed to locate the survivors. They were embarked and, somewhat overloaded with 17 passengers and their kit, got back to Antrim some 35 minutes later. For these feats of incredible airmanship and dedication to duty, the pilot of 406, Lt. Commander Ian Stanley RN, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On the same day as the SAS were landed on the glacier the SBS tried to land south of Grytviken. However, the 2 Scout helicopters transporting them could not climb over a mountain due to a blizzard, so they had to turn back. Several hours later another team was ready to be put ashore. This time they were to go in Gemini inflatable rubber assault boats, with their somewhat unreliable 30-kilowatt outboard motors. Using five boats, 15 men of 2 Section SBS and Boat Troop D Sqn 22 SAS set out in three-man patrols. Almost as soon as it was launched, the first boat's engine failed and it was swept out to sea. Another suffered the same fate in the Antarctic night. One crew was recovered after a 7 hour search by the Wessex HAS 3, the other boat managed to make a landfall on the last piece of land before the open sea. Such was the dedication and training of these troops that they waited for several days before they switched on their Sarbe (search and rescue beacon) in case its signals put the operation in jeopardy.
The other patrols landed successfully earlier on, just after midnight, at the north end of Sirling Valley. They reported just after midday that ice from the glacier was being blown into Cumberland East Bay and was puncturing the rubber skins of their Geminis, so they could not cross the bay to continue on mission. They were recovered during the night of 22 April, and the following day were put ashore in Moraine Fjord. During a lull in the blizzard on 23 April, Mountain Troop were landed again on the Fortuna Glacier, and this time were able to proceed with their mission.
Warnings and contact
Also on the 23rd April London reported that an enemy submarine was entering the area. It was thought that it was on a submerged patrol to attack the ships of the Task Group trying to retake the island, and so the warships withdrew towards the edge of the Exclusion Zone to the north. They rendezvoused with HMS Brilliant on 24 April, the new addition to the Task Force was complete with two Lynx helicopters, valuable replacements for the Wessex 5s which had been lost. The redoubtable Nick Barker and the crew of HMS Endurance stayed behind to keep in contact with the observation parties and once again hid amongst the icebergs, quite a feat in the unwieldy bulk of the Red Plum in those weather conditions.
During the night of 24 April the warships returned, leaving the vulnerable RFA Tidespring who was ordered to remain at sea. An intensive anti-submarine operation was begun, and on Sunday 25 April Antrim's Wessex 3 made a radar contact, spotting Santa Fé on the surface near Grytviken, which she was leaving having landed her reinforcements. The submarine was attacked with depth charges, which exploded very close to her port casing. Badly damaged, she was forced to turn and head back towards Grytviken.
HMS Plymouth launched her Wasp and HMS Brilliant's Lynx was ordered to drop an ASW torpedo if the Santa Fé dived. Antrim's Wessex opened fire with her GPMG, and the Lynx released the torpedo and closed to harass the submarine with its machine gun. The Wasp from HMS Plymouth, under radar control of the Wessex 3, ran in and fired an ASl2 missile. The Wasps from Endurance also scored hits with their ASl2s on the Santa Fé's fin. These missiles did little damage as they punched straight through before exploding. The disabled submarine, leaking oil and streaming smoke, was beached alongside the jetty of the BAS base at King Edward's Point, and the crew were seen running for Grytviken.
The sight of this attack and the Santa Fé's fate must have had a deleterious effect on the morale of the Argentine garrison, and it was decided to attack immediately, even though the original plan had been based on a set-piece landing by M Company. RFA Tidespring was by now some 200 miles out to sea, so the use of 42 Commando's troops was out of the question. The SAS D Squadron commander, Major Cedric Delves DSO, on board Antrim, urged that the opportunity should be seized regardless of this problem, and an immediate landing made.
Another problem immediately presented itself. HMS Endurance was still in Hound Bay, and HMS Plymouth was unable to land a Wessex 3 helicopter on her flight deck, so a composite company was hurriedly made up from all the military personnel on board HMS Antrim, the only platform from which an attack could be launched at such short notice. There were 72 men available to form a company, and 3 troops were formed. The first one was made up of Royal Marines, the 2nd mainly of SBS and the 3rd of SAS. The men were drawn from elements of Mountain and Boat Troops of 22 SAS, 2 Section SBS, headquarters personnel, some of M Company's Royal Marines, members of the Mortar, Administrative Echelon and Recce sections and the ten Royal Marines of Antrim's detachment. There were also the two Naval Gun-Fire Support parties.
Major Sheridan set H-hour at 14:45. At H -30 minutes (02:15) a Wasp helicopter lifted an NGSO, Captain Chris Brown RA and a colleague, both from 148 Battery of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, to a spot where they could observe the Argentines at Grytviken. Major Sheridan and 30 SAS men went ashore and set up the Tactical Headquarters at Hestesletten. The rest of the composite company group followed, the 72 men being transported in two lifts by the 6 available helicopters, and a mortar position was established.
While this initial landing was going on, the NGSO called down fire from the 4.5in guns of HMS Plymouth and HMS Antrim. The aim of the 235-round bombardment was two-fold, to limit casualties and to demonstrate the superior firepower of the British force. No shells touched the Argentine troops, but it was obvious to all concerned the Royal Navy gunners could have hit them if they wished. The message was clear, this is what will happen if you do not surrender!
Major Sheridan's party made their way along the steep slopes of Brown Mountain, and by 17:00 they were within 1000 yards of King Edward's Point. He ordered the landing of more troops from Endurance and Plymouth onto Bore Valley Pass, and asked the ships of the Task Group to show themselves by sailing into Cumberland East Bay. As he was doing this, the Argentines raised three large white flags in King Edward's Point settlement. They had been persuaded that the battle was hopeless by some of the SAS troops arriving in their position by walking through a minefield and running a Union Jack up the pole. A few minutes later, HMS Antrim appeared around Sappho Point, and the landings at Bore Valley Pass were cancelled. Major Sheridan flew across King Edward's Cove by helicopter and the Grytviken garrison surrendered at 17:15.
The next day, 26 April, the 16 Argentines at Leith were invited to surrender by radio, but they refused. A personal visit from the SAS and Royal Marines, however, convinced them that they should do so without a fight. The presence of HMS Plymouth and Endurance in support assisted greatly with the process. The islands had been retaken without the ground forces from either side firing a single shot.
Among the first troops into the settlement at King Edward's Point were the medical officer and his team from HMS Antrim and HMS Brilliant. They attended to an injured sailor from Sante Fé who was seriously wounded, and had to amputate a leg. He survived his injury. The only fatality was an Argentine Chief Petty Officer who was sadly shot while the submarine was being moved under supervision. A skeleton crew of Argentines had been on board, each member with a Royal Marine guard who had instructions to prevent the boat being scuttled. Commands were to be passed down in both Spanish and English so that both could understand. The particular order to blow tanks reached Chief Petty Officer Artuso and his guard only in Spanish. As the Argentine sailor complied with the command, the Royal Marine thought that he was about to scuttle the boat and so he shot him. Artuso was buried with full military honours in the graveyard that holds Sir Ernest Shackleton and many others who have died in the harsh climate of South Georgia.
The clearing-up operation continued with Argentine booby traps and mines being removed by them under supervision of the British troops. The Argentine prisoners, numbering 156 Marines and Navy personnel and 38 civilians, were segregated and kept in Shackleton House until they were transported to Montevideo in Uruguay on 30 April on board RFA Tidespring. The Argentine Force Commander, Lt. Commander Alfredo Astiz, signed a formal document of surrender on 26 April in the wardroom of HMS Antrim in the presence of Captain Brian Young of HMS Antrim, Captain Nick Barker CBE RN of HMS Endurance, Major Guy Sheridan and the SAS Squadron Commander. M Company remained on South Georgia, setting up OPs and guarding against another Argentine attempt to capture it. The island was once again in British hands, only 23 days after its invasion.