There is a persistent myth that the Argentine forces were a bunch of frightened, underfed and ill equipped conscripts with no clue of their business. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their equipment in many cases was superb, in part, much better than that enjoyed by British forces. Defensive positions were well sited and constructed, they had made excellent use of visual deceptions and the radar and ECM equipment were not only extensive but exceptionally well operated as well. Many were volunteers, thought right was on their side and fought with great skill, determination and gallantry. They were not short of most things, there were ample rations, ammunition and equipment, it was just poorly distributed which meant there were many local shortages outside Port Stanley, especially of food.
However, the rift between the officer/SNCO and other ranks was enormous, logistics were inconsistent and several exhibited behaviour that could be reasonably be considered a war crime.
At the end of the day, they had no effective campaign plan because quite simply, they did not expect such a resolute response.
The best soldiers on the planet, sailing 8,000 miles across open ocean, supported by equally fine air and sea forces, with firm intent, fighting skill, discipline and centuries of tradition behind them was simply not within their range of expectations.
Following the surrender of the Argentine forces, it was now time to consolidate and prevent a rematch.
Although Argentina had accepted the Instrument of Ceasefire they only recognised this locally, there was no wider recognition of the cessation of hostilities so although they were down for the count the British government recognised that the nature of the unfinished business needed sensible and sturdy consolidation.
Unfortunately, the scale of the other problems facing both the victorious military forces and civilian inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were immense, there were many priorities, every single one of them number one.
Disposal of the detritus of war, getting the defeated Argentine forces home safe and well, restoring damaged or destroyed utilities, keeping everyone fed and watered, rotating British forces out of theatre, satisfying the demands of the world’s media and basically getting the islanders back to some semblance of normality all competed with rehabilitating the airport.
That said, commanders were entirely focussed on the airport facilities, it might have been competing with other resource demands but it was generally beating them as well. Unlike the Argentine forces, we recognised the strategic value of air defence from the islands.
For several weeks, there was also a real fear that elements of the Argentine forces might try an armed publicity stunt.
Whilst there might have been some professional respect for Argentine forces, despite several examples of conduct that fell far short of acceptable, and pity for their plight, much of this evaporated when the extent of damage to Stanley and the degree of booby traps in an area full of civilians became apparent.
Argentine forces had deliberately set many complex booby traps in the latter stages of the conflict in civilian houses and places of business. These were often linked to attractive items like boots, binoculars or thermos flasks and many of the discarded munitions were also booby trapped, some even attached to propane cylinders. Water supply in Port Stanley was always a problem, Argentine forces even turned all the taps on in houses they occupied and opened fire hydrants. This was in addition to Argentine personnel deliberately treated almost every room in some houses as a latrine.
A vast quantity and variety of mines had been laid and not just in out of the way locations.
The hazard to civilians (especially children) and service personnel was enormous.
On June 14th Major Roddy McDonald, the OC of 59 Independent Squadron Royal Engineers managed to track down the Argentine chief engineer, one Lt. Col Dorago, in order to assess the scale of the mine problem. Other personnel from 59 joined in, a warning was broadcast on local radio and through the military chain of command, and fourteen selected Argentine volunteers were utilised to complete the recce.
By the end of the day, the full realisation of the scale of the Argentine mining and booby trapping efforts had become apparent.
It was staggering.
They simply did not know how many or where mines had been laid, records were incomplete or incorrect, markers had been removed and mines had shifted in peat and deep sand. The problem was made worse because the Argentine chain of command allowed almost any unit to lay mines, marines, artillery and all manner of infantry units, not just the professional combat engineers. After a number of casualties the initial clearance effort changed to one of ‘marking only’
The POW volunteer force of Argentine combat engineers expanded, formed a close working relationship with British forces and received special privileges and pay not enjoyed by other POW’s.
A joint guard of honour and bugler were provided for the burials of Argentine soldiers discovered during the clearance operations and in thanks for the rapid medevac and treatment of an injured Argentine member of the demining team they paid for and cooked a barbecue for British members of the team and OC of 9 Parachute Squadron RE.
9 PARA left for the UK on the 17th July and were replaced in the mine clearance role by 69 Ghurka Independent Field Squadron RE.
Desalination equipment was lost on the Atlantic Conveyor, as well as tentage for five thousand personnel, exacerbating the problems. 9 Squadron and 61 Field Support Squadron RE managed to get water supplies running after four days and this was supplemented with water dracones towed into Port Stanley harbour.
In addition, to mines and booby traps, an equally huge problem was that of unexploded munitions of every kind. Everything from small arms ammunition to napalm canisters to anti-aircraft missiles to flares were strewn around the area, half opened and often poorly accounted for.
‘Dumdum’ small arms ammunition was found in addition to a large stock of SA-7 MANPAD missiles fresh off the plane from Col. Gadaffi. Grenades, flares, rockets, cannon shells, mortar bombs, small arms ammunition, aircraft bombs, missiles, napalm, and artillery ammunition all needed to be tackled. Unboxed ammunition was recovered to the UK but anything else was made safe and destroyed by a combined Royal Navy, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Engineers and Royal Air Force team of EOD specialists.
The area of Stanley, a town that normally supported about 800 people, was no home to ten thousand POW’s, about five thousand UK military personnel, and of course, the permanent residents.
And all this was before the problems of the airport had been addressed.
There were three broad objectives for the British Forces in regards of air operations.
ONE; Re-establish basic air operations at Stanley Airport such that they could support Harrier and Hercules aircraft. This would allow much of the task force, especially the aircraft carriers, to return to the UK, and replacement forces to arrive quickly.
TWO; Extend and reinforce Stanley Airport to allow the Harriers to depart and be replaced with Phantoms.
THREE; Select a suitable location for a large military airfield that could support all current and future combat and transport aircraft.
RAF Stanley – Phase One
Stanley Airport, formerly BAM Malvinas, was in an equally poor state as Port Stanley.
The image below reportedly taken the day after the surrender, shows Stanley Airport
The first task to conduct a survey and make safe any exploded munitions, booby traps and mines, of which there were plenty.
This task would fall to both the Royal Engineers and Royal Air Force EOD teams. No.1 Bomb Disposal Group RAF would play a considerable part in clearing Stanley Airport of unexploded munitions but that had a difficult start to the campaign. On the 27th of match they boarded RFA Sir Bedivere with all their vehicles and equipment but when loading had completed, were ordered off again. Another four man team clearing unexploded cluster bomblets from the West Freugh range in Scotland had been killed and the embarked team were disembarked in order to complete the task. The team would eventually join the task force by being flown to Ascension Island to catch up with Sir Bedivere. The team cleared munitions in San Carlos and Goose Green, especially the leaking napalm cannisters and mines at Goose Green. By the time the team had finished its deployment, it had cleared over 900 unexploded bombs, numerous mines and booby traps and tonnes of napalm.
The Argentine aircraft that were left at Stanley Airport were also cleared of booby traps, munitions removed and to prevent accidents by the ever present ‘trophy hunters’ the ejection seats were removed (firing the ejection seats was also used to initiate booby traps)
Once made safe, aircraft were then moved to an assembly area for eventual disposal
Once made safe, aircraft were then moved to an assembly area for eventual disposal.
A number of PoW’s volunteered for removing none explosive debris and sweeping the runway after they assumed that such endeavours would earn them a priority ticket home, quite how they came to this belief has never been determined!
A number of Exocet missiles were also found, the canisters which would be used later.
Making Good the Runway
During the conflict, the runway was cratered by 5 bombs. The first and deepest was from Black Buck I and the others were much shallower, from retarded bombs dropped by the Sea Harriers/Harrier GR.3a’s. There were also over 1,000 shallow scabs from rockets, BL 755 bomblets, 4.5” shells and cannon fire.
59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers (with a troop from 20 Field Squadron) filled in three craters and about 500 of the scabs on the Northern half of the runway, the repairs were made by using magnesium phosphate cement called Bostik 276.
The thousand pound bomb craters on the runway were backfilled and a quantity of AM-2 repair matting used to cover them. It was also discovered that Argentine engineers had used filled oil drums to fill the Vulcan crater, these were removed.
This allowed the runway to be used for planned Hercules flights.
The first RAF Hercules landed on the 24th of June 1982, ten days after the surrender, a magnificent, and generally unrecognised achievement.
Harrier Operations and Airport Development
Using PSA-1 from the Port San Carlos FOB and a quantity of AM-2 matting left at the airport a short parallel runway, to the north of the main runway, was also created for use by Harriers.
The RAF Harrier GR.3 detachment, armed with Sidewinders, went ashore to Port Stanley Airport on the 4th of July and operated in the air defence role. A number of Rubb shelters were installed to provide sheltered maintenance spaces but the weather was so severe, a number were dislodged and damaged aircraft.
11 Field Squadron Royal Engineers also supported the repair effort and as can be imagined, the tasks were extremely varied. Not widely known is that in order to create a drainage culvert, the engineers used a pair of empty Exocet missile containers.
In addition, to the runway, the airport support facilities were enhanced greatly and the sign was changed as well.
The RAF’s 259 Radar Detachment were embarked with their equipment on the STUFT vessel St Edmund on the 20th May 1982. A couple of days after surrender they came ashore and started work on assembling a mobile radar and TACAN navigation system. These facilities were then extended and replaced with additional facilities installed at Windy Ridge.
These temporary repairs accommodated 77 Hercules and many hundreds of Harrier sorties before the runway was closed for a more permanent repair and extension on the 15th of August, three weeks after the first Hercules landed.
RAF Stanley – Phase Two
The initial repairs had not repaired the southern half of the runway width and whilst this offered a bare minimum for Hercules and Harrier operations it was not sufficient for anything else. The runway would need to be properly repaired and extended to support safer Hercules operations and the replacement of Harrier with Phantoms, a much more potent air defence aircraft.
When it became clear that victory would be achieved the state of the runway at Port Stanley Airport became an issue of serious planning, it would be central to any post surrender defence of the islands. In May 1982, 50 Field Squadron Royal Engineers was given the task of creating an expeditionary airfield at Port Stanley, expectations were of course that the Task Force would prevail.
The requirement called for a main runway that would be 6,100 ft long (from 4,100 ft), the full width of 150ft and having an LCN of 45 in order to accommodate fully loaded and fuelled Phantom’s. In addition to the main runway was a requirement for five Rotary Hydraulic Arrestor Gear (RHAG) sets, sufficient power provision, extensive parking apron, dispersal areas with shelters, roadways, engineering shelters and bulk fuel facilities with a ship to shore pipeline.
Experience with the dispersed air locations in support of the Harrier GR.3 force in Germany was vital but it also demonstrated to the design team that the UK did not have enough equipment, much of the existing UK expeditionary airfield equipment and stores went down with the Atlantic Conveyor.
The US AM2 aluminium matting system was the answer to the runway problem.
In Washington, the Air Attaché (Air Vice-Marshal Ron Dick) was despatched to obtain a large quantity of AM2 aluminium matting, arrestor gear and other supplies. The United States were exceptionally cooperative and opened up their war stocks.
50 Field Squadron (Construction) arrived on the 14th of July, 1982 and established a project office behind the Stanley Airport control tower.
The 17,000 tonne MV Strathewe arrived at Port Stanley on the evening of the 17th of July at moorings provided by the MV Wimpey Seahorse. Naval Party 2150 and members of 11 Field Squadron Royal Engineers provided the labour for offloading together with the Composite Port Squadron of the Royal Corps of Transport and was complete on the 5th of August. The MV Strathewe also carried two 150 tonne RCL’s (L105 Arromanches & L106 Antwerp) and the heavy stone crushing equipment needed for the runway sub base. The Cedar Bank was unloaded during the same time frame. Because Port Stanley had no permanent berthing facilities suitable for such large ships they both had to be offloaded whilst at anchor in Port William Sound. Making this task more difficult was the weather and the shortage of equipment and suitable slipways.
Enter the RCL and Mexeflote
The importance of the Mexeflotes and their 17 Port Regiment RCT operators cannot be overstated, without their efforts the materials required to construct the facilities at the airport would have taken an immeasurable amount of time longer than required.
With a journey time between the ship and B slipway in Port Stanley Harbour of between 30 and 40 minutes the maximum weights would have to be exploited. AM2 and construction plant is heavy and even the Mexeflote was seen to struggle on occasions. Slipway B was the only useable slipway for heavy stores and had to be repaired and reinforced by the sappers before use. One particularly challenging load was the pair of 45 tonne rock crushers required at the Mary Hill quarry near the airport, the operation had to be carried out at night because they would not fit under the overhead power and telephone wires in Port Stanley, the wires were temporarily lifted as the equipment was very slowly pushed and pulled into place by a recovery vehicle and Combat Engineer Tractor.
In one incident, a pair Haulmatic earthmovers were lost over the side of a Mexeflote during poor weather. They were eventually recovered, repaired and rechristened as Aquamatics!
A great deal of stone aggregate was needed to provide a sub base for the AM2 matting. This was obtained from the quarry near the airport at Mary Hill, the source of quartzite for the original runway. Due to the quantities required for the extension the quarry needed some additional development and the resultant rock extracted was harder than expected which resulted in some problems with the crushing equipment as wear rates exceeded the expected.
Blasting operations would often shower the runway with small rocks and dislodge the AM2 matting which needed clearance and repair.
60 Field Support Squadron Royal Engineers would eventually provide over 25,000 tonnes of crushed rock for the construction activity.
The new runway was to be 2,000 feet longer, at 6,100 feet and was to have a single uniform layer of AM2, all, obviously, at a single height. The extension was at the West end of the runway, where Black Buck 2 had dropped its stick of bombs in order to stop the Argentine forces extending the runway.
The soil conditions were extremely poor, a mix of peat and sand with a very high water table.
AM2 is a 12 or 6 feet by 2 feet interlocking aluminium sandwich construction ‘plank’ that fits together to form a single surface. 4,700 tonnes were used at Port Stanley at a cost of £10 million.
The official US description of AM-2 is;
The area to the West of the runway would be used for the extension but it had a high water table, was peaty and at a different level to the main runway. New techniques including the use of geotextiles such as the Tensar Stabilisation Grid and Terram textile layers were used to great effect.
The key factor in planning the resurfacing and extension was to minimise disruption to air operations. As much preparation as possible therefore was carried out before, lest Argentina take advantage in the gap in air cover from the Harriers, although cover was available from the Fleet Air Arm. Despite this cover, speed was of the essence because Hercules flights were being heavily utilised.
Part of the preparations included practising the best techniques, team size and how the install rate could be best supported by the stores delivery transport and handling equipment.
The last C130 Hercules departed on the 15th of August and the runway was closed for refurbishment.
The multiple teams swung into action, eight troops of 26 men, Royal Engineers, infantry from the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Own Highlanders and even the odd sailor and airman for good measure. Two teams were on the go at any one time, working three on nine off shifts.
Wind was a major problem and if a panels grip was lost in high winds the result could be fatal. Competition, intense rivalry and the odd side bet characterised this phase so much so that it was reported in bad weather, the teams had to be ordered to stop.
Operating conditions were very difficult and in one unfortunate incident a working party of Royal Engineers from 11 Field Squadron and Welsh Guards were injured whilst waiting to cross the runway, some severely, when a Sidewinder missile was accidentally fired from a Harrier.
A bulk fuel facility was established near the runway and a pipeline laid across the mined terrain to the beach at Yorke Point. This pipeline was apparently earmarked for disposal but had been squirreled away by an enterprising QM at Long Marston and sent south. A floating pipeline was then used to connect the main pipeline to a beached fuel filled dracone. When empty, the dracone would be towed out, by a Royal Corps of Transport workboat, to a waiting tanker anchored in Port William and refilled. The beach area contained a wrecked D6 bulldozer and a Combat Engineer Tractor that had been damaged by a mine.
A dracone can be seen to the left of this image
The three, later five, Rotary Hydraulic Arrestor Gear (RHAG) required concrete foundations but when complete, could dissipate 65mJ of energy to allow a tail hook equipped 23-tonne aircraft landing at 130 knots to come to a complete stop in 350ft.
The RAF Hercules would still fly in this period, instead of landing they would air drop supplies at Seal Point and even used the snatch method to pick up sacks of outbound mail.
From the Lyneham Village website;
Two days ahead of the scheduled completion date, the complete runway was ready on the 27th of August.
The first Hercules landing on the new billiard table smooth surface was completed the day after.
Upon completion of the runway, the Royal Engineers proudly erected a suitably painted sign (sign writing being an RE trade) proudly announcing the opening of Holdfast Airport.
It wouldn’t last long, of course, after a Vulcan sized sense of humour failure, the RAF replaced it with one saying RAF Stanley!
Members of the RAF movement squadron arrived and painted the tower green, with 3” brushes.
Rubb and spandrel type hangars, together will all manner of engineering and logistics support facilities, were installed and improved.
Helicopters (including Bristow SAR) and Harrier GR.3’s continued to operate from the new facilities, new additional arriving air-freight.
Helicopters (including Bristow SAR) and Harrier GR.3’s continued to operate from the new facilities, new additional arriving air-freight.
With the completion of the extended runway at RAF Stanley the first Phantom from 29 Squadron located at Ascension arrived on the 17th of October. Seven other Phantoms were to follow in short order although, in the interim, the Harriers would soldier on. These were replaced later by 23 Squadron. 18 Squadron, who had been operating Chinooks since the conflict continued to use RAF Stanley.
Elsewhere, 29 Squadron, with three F4 Phantom FGR2’s, took over the Quick Reaction Alert task at Ascension Island from the Harriers of 1 Squadron on the 25th of May.
Hercules refuelling tankers would also have to play a significant role in operations at RAF Stanley, as did Nimrods and reportedly, Buccaneer aircraft.
With repeated use, AM-2 has a tendency to ‘walk’ down a runway and so every six weeks, OP BENDER (honestly) would be carried out to pull the complete runway back into position using chains and heavy vehicles. This first took 36 hours to complete but was reduced to 12 hours by the end of RAF Stanley’s use.
Quarrying continued and would present a hazard to flight operations but this was carefully managed.
Joining the Phantoms at RAF Stanley in the Falklands Islands Air Defence Ground Environment (FIADGE) were two radar stations, first on Mount Kent, then Byron Heights and Mount Alice, where the remain to this day. Each site required 700 ISO containers of equipment and materials to be flown there by Chinook.
RAF Stanley even had a famous visitor, or two.
Margaret Thatcher visited the airport in January 1983, transported there in an RAF C130 Hercules that had been fitted with a VIP pod. The 24x9x8 ft pod contained four ex VC-10 seats, bunks and washroom facilities. The Prime Minister’s Hercules took off from Ascension Island with an accompanying Hercules, at 1,300nm the Prime Minister’s renevouzed for refuelling with a Victor tanker (itself having been refuelled a 1,000nm south of Ascension Island), at 1,800nm the Victor refuelled the Hercules Tanker. Finally, at 2,600nm, the Hercules tanker refuelled the Prime Minister’s Hercules and returned to Ascension Island.
The return flight was to use the same aircraft but unfortunately, it developed problems at RAF Stanely, forcing the ‘Iron Lady’ to travel back on a standard Hercules, without the comfort pod.
The Airport today, with that all important sign.
The reason I have detailed the post conflict RAF Stanley clearance and development activity is because it is important for subsequent analysis.