It is very difficult to write anything original about the Falklands Conflict in 1982, there is such a huge volume of published material and very little not covered.
This is a follow on from the article on the Atlantic Conveyor, another under reported story.
We often think that once the Atlantic Conveyor had offloading her precious cargo of Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s her job was more or less done but although the original concept for Atlantic Conveyor was just as a transport for the Harriers at the last minute it was decided to use her to carry two other things.
The first of these ‘others’ was a number of Chinook and Wessex helicopters and in the previous post we discussed the impact of losing all the helicopters but a single Chinook (Bravo November) on subsequent plans, especially the ill-fated landings at Bluff Cove. The loss of the vast majority of the heavy lift helicopters meant ground forces had to walk to Stanley.
The second and much less known of the trio of vital items on-board the Atlantic Conveyor was a complete Harrier Forward Operating Base that would have allowed the Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s to operate from land rather than far offshore on the two carriers.
Planning assumptions for the FOB included sustained operations over a 22 day period before resupply with fuel, weapons, air traffic control and maintenance facilities for 12 aircraft with a 400m runway.
The key planning metric was 8 sorties per day.
The design of the Harrier was predicated on operating away from large airbases and in austere operating bases.
In all the bitterness that has surfaced between the RAF and Fleet Air Arm over Harrier operations in the South Atlantic and the huge volume of material that has been published the role of the Forward Operating Base as provided by the Royal Engineers has been less discussed.
This is the story of the San Carlos FOB…
Combat engineering support for the Task Force came in the form of 59 Independent Field Squadron RE supporting 3 Commando, 9 Parachute Squadron RE supporting 5 Infantry Brigade and detachments and elements from 2 Port Control Regiment, 36 Engineer Regiment, 38 Engineer Regiment, 33 Engineer Regiment and the Royal Pioneer Corps, over 800 personnel in total.
On the 8th of May a signal to the task force made it clear that the establishment of a landing site for Harriers and helicopters should be a top priority
While ‘Repossession’ remains the ultimate aim it can only be achieved in stages. The first stage is to build a secure bridgehead, where sea/air resupply can be conducted in safety. This must be followed by the establishment of a landing site ashore for helos and Harriers.
On the 12t of May CINCFLEET issued the order 3/82 for Operation SUTTON. The same day a signal from Major General Moore to Brigadier Thompson again made it clear.
You are to secure a bridgehead on East Falkland, into which reinforcements can be landed, in which an airstrip can be established, and from which operations to repossess the Falkland Islands can be developed.
Once 2 Para, 3 Para, 40 Cdo and 45 Cdo had landed the next priority was to establish local ground based air defence because due to the distance from San Carlos to the carriers the Sea Harriers could only stay over the area in their Combat Air Patrol role for 10 minutes.
At this stage the safety of the carriers was paramount, without them it was doubtful the operation would be successful so they were positioned Eastward, out of range of attacking aircraft and the Exocet.
12 Rapier firing units were established and the build-up of supplies continued. A pair of GR3’s from HMS Hermes destroyed an Argentine Chinook and Puma which greatly degraded their ability to counter attack the vulnerable beachhead but an Aermacchi sortie from Stanley spotted the shipping in San Carlos water and soon after the serious air attacks began.
On D+1 the site was reconnoitered and construction commenced on D+2 by both 11 and 59 Squadrons.
The old Auster strip at San Carlos settlement was also considered but discounted because of load bearing concerns.
The attacks on shipping at San Carlos are well documented, as are the Argentine pilot’s poor choice of targets, unresolved bomb arming issues and dogged, heroic determination. It was during this period that discussions and disagreements about the most effective means of defending against air attack emerged, bringing the carriers closer, positioning the escorts away from the close confines of the landing area, using the Type 22/42 pairing for better Sea Harrier control for example.
The Fleet Air Arm delivered extremely impressive sortie rates and were equally as effective but their time on station was limited.
On the 24th of May the Stromness, Norland and Sir Percivale had been emptied of their stores
By the 25th commanders felt increasing optimism, the beachhead had been secured, stores were being built up and combined forces had started to achieve the upper hand in the air war, despite significant losses. Argentine commanders correctly assumed that the opportunity to dislodge British forces from San Carlos had passed and their best course of action was to disrupt the sustainment of a blockade.
The 25th of May saw a large scale attack and as per the post on the Atlantic Conveyor, she was hit by two Exocet missiles. On board the Atlantic Conveyor was a large quantity of specialised AM2 aluminium runway matting and aircraft refuelling equipment.
This was a huge blow to the construction of the FOB.
There is some contradiction in the various sources used for this post on what surface materials were actually used.
Some say there was a quantity of AM2 matting available on the Stronmess and others indicate that the sappers had to scrounge matting material from all over the place, pierced steel planking (PSP), Class 30 trackway, bomb damage repair matting, MEXE Pads and even the materials used for temporary helicopter pads on the many civilian ships were assembled and used instead, again, much of it from the Stromness.
[UPDATE, David Morgan DSC commented on the post that it was PSA 1 (Pre-fabricated Strip, Aluminium)]
Whether it was AM2, PSP, Clas 30 trackway, MEXE Pads, repair matting, PSA 1 or a combination of all of them is an interesting technical point but the fact remains that a 260m runway was established.
A set of emergency fuel handling equipment was also secured from the Stromness and a Combat Engineer Tractor (one of only 2 sent South) was used to excavate the bunding for the EBFI fuel bladders.
HMS/RNAS Sheathbill or RAF Port San Carlos was the official name for the FOB depending on which service you belonged to and it was also called Sid’s Strip after Flt Lt Sid Morris, the FOB commander.
The runway was just over 260m long with a separate vertical landing area and parking space for 4 Harriers, much less than the planning assumption of 12.
The Forward Operating Base for Harriers and helicopters had been established by 28th of May when helicopters were refuelled and the battle for San Carlos was deemed to be over. The FOB was declared operational on the 2nd of June and almost immediately used for helicopters although weather would cause problems for a few days and it was not until the 5th when the first Harriers used it.
A difference of opinion surfaced between Admiral Fieldhouse and Major General Moore about the threat posed to the carriers. Major General Moore was firmly of the opinion that the threat had diminished to a level that would allow them to be bought in closer to the islands and therefore provide longer duration combat air patrols and offensive missions in support of ground forces. Admiral Fieldhouse was not convinced.
The official history records;
Fieldhouse continued to fret about the carriers, postulating hypothetical and rather daring Argentine moves, well beyond recent activity, involving feints by a frigate and destroyer force to draw escorts away from the British carrier group and leave it more vulnerable to air attack
He won the argument and the carriers remained far offshore meaning that the FOB became doubly useful, if not essential.
The normal Sea Harrier sortie was 75 minutes long which included a 65 minute journey to and from the carriers, only 10 minutes effective mission time. The FOB allowed the Sea Harriers to complete their transit and refuel a number of times before flying back to the aircraft carriers.
For the GR3’s the FOB meant they could wait there for a tasking from a Forward Air Controller.
Fuel was always a problem even though after MOGAS (motor gasoline) for the Rapier units, AVGAS for the FOB was a top priority. At its peak the FOB dispensed over 50,000 litres of fuel per and supported nearly 120 aircraft movements per day.
All was not rosy in the FOB garden though.
It was shorter than planned with only the facilities to refuel and not much else.
Although all Rapier batteries were fully operational by the 8th of June and SOP’s established for the departure and arrival of aircraft via Fanning Head the lack of IFF equipment on the Task Force helicopters meant that due to almost continual lock ons the Rapier Blindfire system had to be shut down, degrading the usefulness of the system as a whole.
Also on the 8th of June there was an incident at the FOB
The Harrier GR3 in the picture is XZ289/07 of 1(F) Squadron RAF; the pilot was Wing Commander Peter Squire who later went on to become an Air Chief Marshal. The aircraft was carrying a few defects but it was intended to mount Ground Alert at the FOB, upon landing at the FOB the pilot misjudged the approach and caused what was assumed to be a pin or other foreign object of some sort to be ingested into the engine. As the aircraft overshot it became obvious that the damage was significant and because the aircraft was pointing at a Rapier firing unit the pilot elected to stay with the aircraft instead of ejecting. It came to rest at the end of the landing strip close to a trench which was occupied at the time by a member of the RAF Regiment, the person looking somewhat interestingly into the cockpit, apparently!
The GR3 was stripped for parts and because of the small size of the FOB was out of action for a few hours whilst repairs were made.
A detachment of 820 NAS Sea Kings were stationed near to the FOB from the 9th for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes and sometimes used the refuelling facilities.
On the 13th another incident at the FOB saw the sole British Chinook, Bravo November, lift a number of matting planks with its down draught, throwing them to one side and requiring a significant repair effort. This happened at precisely the wrong time as a pair of Harriers were returning to refuel.
They were too low on fuel to divert to the carriers and so the landing decks of the assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid were hastily cleared to allow them a temporary landing spot where they were refuelled and send on their way soon after.
The 14th saw the Argentine forces surrender and the FOB out of action in the early morning due to icing.
Ifs, Buts and Maybe’s
When you write something like this it is interesting to pose a few questions, not trying to have a revisionist slant but looking at possible alternative pathways.
If the FOB was large enough to withstand being closed by the accident could it have been used to provide air patrols on the 8th. The 8th is of course the date of the attack on HMS Plymouth, RFA Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad?
As planned the FOB would certainly have been larger and with much greater capacity and perhaps been able to provide sufficient cover, 51 men lost their lives during that attack with many more wounded.
The second question revolves around timing.
Whilst there is no doubt that the logistic priority for the initial phase of the landing was personnel from the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines, their ammunition and Rapier firing units the Atlantic Conveyor was not due to offload her cargo of FOB stores until the 25th or 4 days after the initial landings.
Had this been scheduled for sooner would it have made any difference and would it have been possible to offload it any quicker in any case?
Finally, if a fully constituted FOB was in operation that meant day and night operations with maintenance and arming facilities could the Argentine Air Force C130 flights into Stanley have been interdicted?
It was one of these missions, on or around the 10th of June that bought an Exocet missile and ships launcher that was subsequently modified for truck launching.
On the 12th, it was fired at HMS Glamorgan, killing 13.
I really don’t want this one to descend into an F35B v F35C argument but although we see often VSTOL as a niche capability at least in 1982 it proved its worth.
It has taken some time to research this piece because of the distinct lack of information and what is out there is often contradictory, sources of information and images for this piece include;
Fast Air UK
Military Engineering in the Falklands, Institute of Civil Engineers, Sinclair, Barton and Kennedy
The Army Rumour Service
Britain’s Small Wars
Imperial War Museum
RAF Web Site
Some of the images are seen in any number of locations so it is difficult to pin down the originator, as usual, thanks in advance to those I haven’t managed to get permission from in advance