If the amphibious operations in Normandy were unprecedented because of their scale, the Falklands conflict landings at San Carlos were equally remarkable because of the huge distance involved and minimal time available to plan. One might reasonably argue that even taking into account Inchon and Suez, it was the world’s most complex and demanding amphibious operation since D-Day.
Since VE day and Suez the UK’s amphibious capabilities had dwindled both in scale and capability, the Royal Marines concentrating on their Northern Europe role. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 the scale of the challenge had many echoes of D-Day; a need for joint service cooperation and a number of technical challenges to overcome for example. What we did not have was the luxury of time; no time to develop new and novel solutions, no time for testing and certainly no time for practice beyond what was available on the journey south.
Due to the short timescales British Rail, for example, could not reposition their rolling stock to get the War Material Reserve (about 9,000 tonnes just for 3CDO; 30 days combat supplies and 60 days of general stores) to the ships so instead, a fleet of Royal Corps of Transport (RCT) and civilian trucks were used.
More or less, we went with what we had.
In little over a month from the invasion, the first ships had departed the UK on their 8,000 mile journey South. It should also be noted that the conflict occurred at the height of the Cold War and NATO commitments still had to be maintained.
There is no need to recount the general history of the campaign but from a ship to shore logistics perspective there were a number of equipment and capabilities available to Commodore Clapp and Brigadier Thompson worth describing.
Landing Platform Dock (LPD)
The Landing Platform Dock (LPD) was the main means of landing an amphibious force and there were two available to the task force. However, this availability was not without complications. HMS Intrepid was in preparation for sale to Argentina (yes, honestly) and HMS Fearless was without satellite communications facilities and only one secure VHF link available for ship to shore communications.
To cut a long story short, they both ended up on Operation Corporate.
The Fearless Class LPD had an enclosed dock, could accommodate approximately 400 troops and a small number of armoured and light vehicles.
The dock had a large stern gate and could be flooded to provide access for landing craft. The sea state for dock operations is not high and in severe conditions because it is free flooding landing craft may bottom out, not for nothing is the interior lined with large timbers to provide some degree of protection to both.
HMS Fearless and Intrepid each carried 8 landing craft, 4 each of two types.
The smaller Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) were carried on davits and could accommodate a light vehicle and trailer or about 30 personnel.
To carry heavy vehicles the four Landing Craft Utility (LCU) were carried in the dock. They had been de-rated to 60 tonnes capacity from 100, but the normal operating capacity would be regularly exceeded.
One of the LCU’s ended up being purchased by the Barclay brothers to transport construction supplies in the Channel Islands.
Landing Ship Logistics (LSL)
The Knights of the Round Table LSL’s were designed to provide additional logistic support for deployed forces. All six could beach and unload directly, but this was not used in San Carlos because the terrain was unsuitable. They were ordered in the early sixties and initially managed by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company before coming under the control of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1970.
The LSL’s were not large vessels, but that was deliberate. They could embark a range of heavy and light vehicles, stores and personnel in addition to having the facility to side load the Mexeflote’s. A bow and stern ramp and door meant they were roll on roll off and the design was very flexible, even though they were without a floodable well dock.
The Mexeflote came into service with the British Army in the early 60’s, elegant in its simplicity, they are simply pontoon sections that can be pinned together (much like the Bailey bridge) to form lighterage rafts, jetties and piers.
When used as a powered pontoon they use what are in effect, large outboard motors.
The Knights class RFA’s would carry two, one on each side. To deploy them the lashings were removed leaving a single quick release fitting holding it until the whole thing was released, the Mexeflote falling into the water. Recovery involves manoeuvring them alongside, removing the engine, winching them up over the fender belt and securing for transit.
Multiple Mexeflote can be combined and in addition to acting as a powered raft can also be as a jetty, floating transfer platform or other floating structures. The modular construction allows a variety of shapes to be constructed. When used as a powered raft they are usually commanded by a junior NCO with a crew of 5. Individual pontoons are of welded steel construction with flush sides.
Built into the sides and ends of the pontoons are recessed slots into which the connectors are fitted. The bow pontoon consists of a forward section, an aft section and a ramp. The forward section is hinged to the bottom edge of the box-shaped aft section and can articulate vertically to a maximum of 457 mm above the deck level and be lowered to a maximum of 380 mm below the surface of the aft section. The manually operated, demountable articulator is mounted in a recess in the aft section and is connected to the forward section by an articulator ram.
The articulator has a safe working load in excess of 80 tonnes. The pontoon ramp is hinged to the forward section and slides over the forward end of the aft section to bridge the gap between the sections. The centre pontoon is a box-shaped unit with an internal lateral bulkhead dividing the interior into two watertight compartments. The front ramps are hydraulically mounted and the engines/propulsion units are connected at the rear.
Total payload depends on the size of the assembled pontoon
- The Type A raft is 20.12 metres x 7.32 metres x 1.45 metres. Capacity 60T
- The Type B raft is 38.41 metres x 7.32 metres x 1.45 metres. Capacity 120T
- Maxi Mexi, 180 tonnes
The propulsion units, or outboards to you are me, are rather special.
Modular Z Drive propulsion units from Sykes Hydromaster provided the motive force when used as a powered raft and although it might not look particularly seaworthy can be used in 1.5m wave conditions. The pontoon sections are sized to be compatible with ISO containers, oh yes!
2 officers and 151 other ranks from 17 Port Regiment Royal Corps of Transport would provide the Mexeflote and mechanical handling force. Because of concerns about severe weather ripping the Mexeflote off their normal side loaded locations they were carried as deck cargo and craned overboard when needed. At Ascension, most of the stores for the initial landings were split between the LSL’s Sir Percival and Sir Galahad. Operation Sutton was the landings at San Carlos and within 5 hours all the personnel were ashore.
3 CDO Logistics Support Regiment set up at Ajax Bay or Red Beach and started the task of unloading the stores from the LSL’s.
It was estimated that Mexeflote’s shifted over three quarters of the stores transferred from ship to shore.
Two things stood out for me whilst reading about Mexeflote operations in the Falkland Islands.
The first was that Mexeflote’s were used as causeways between ships in open ocean, stores were driven between ships over a mexeflote causeway with Fiat Allis forklifts, incredible.
Second, in San Carlos water they were used in overload conditions, the pontoon actually underwater, the deck awash whilst carrying loads approaching 200 tonnes.
And that is before you read about the Military Medal awarded to Sgt Boultby for using his Mexeflote to rescue survivors at Bluff Cove.
Mexeflotes would also provide sterling service after the cessation of hostilities and were the only thing capable of offloading bulk materials and heavy stores until the Ramped Craft Logistic arrived. They were also used for transferring prisoners to the SS Canberra before sailing to Argentina.
Working in perfect harmony with the mexeflotes were the Eager Beaver fork lifts. The Eager Beavers were used to take pallets from the beached mexeflotes forward to storage locations ready for onward transfer. This quick unloading allowed the slow mexeflotes to get going back to the ships.
Eager Beavers came into service in the late sixties and served until the mid-eighties when they were replaced with heavier all terrain forklifts with cabs and a reasonable degree of safety. The Tractor, Wheeled, Fork Lift 4,000 lb was developed and manufactured by the Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham to meet a requirement for a lightweight, air droppable fork lift truck. We even had remote control and armoured versions for use in Northern Ireland, click here for a picture.
Beach Recovery Vehicle
During the early sixties the Sherman BARV was replaced with a twelve Centurion based designs, the FV4018 CeBARV. Centurion BARV’s were deployed to the Falklands in 1982 although only one was in a serviceable condition, nevertheless, the other was invaluable.
The design of the Centurion BARV was broadly similar to the Sherman version and could operate in water up to 2.9m.
Class 30 Trackway
In 1960, MEXE in Dorset designed the modern trackway after extensive exercising in Germany showed that assault and logistics bridgeheads needed some form of ground stabilisation system to prevent vehicles getting bogged down. The ever fascinating British Pathe has a short clip here. In conjunction with MEXE, Laird Anglesey developed the ubiquitous Class 30 Trackway and subsequently won the manufacturing contract.
In 1968, Mexe also outlined a requirement for a heavier version of the Class 30 product and the Class 60 was developed, trialled and placed into production soon after.
Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT)
The LSL’s were not nearly enough for 3CDO let alone the eventual force that sailed, help would be needed.
That help eventually turned out to be a collection of civilian vessels either requisitioned or chartered civilian vessels that would join the significant Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) group. In total, 673 thousand gross tons of shipping were taken up, from 33 different companies and 52 ships.
These ranged from the forward support ship Stena Seaspread to the hospital ship Uganda, in between were the Atlantic Conveyor, tugs, tankers, RORO ferries, general cargo vessels and mooring support vessels.
Commander Nick messenger wrote a comprehensive article on STUFT, click here to view
The thing to focus on in the sheer number of vessels needed and their variety and size, yes, it was a long tail, but the force size was relatively modest.
Floating Interim Port and Storage System (FIPASS)
Probably the most ingenious and revolutionary bit of ship to shore logistics capability that no one has ever heard of, FIPASS was deceptively simple.
It was not used until a few years after the conflict but worth describing here as it sets the scene for a number of subsequent posts. Soon after the liberation of the Falkland Islands the construction phase for the airbase at Mount Pleasant and Mare Harbour commenced. This meant a considerable influx of construction personnel, equipment and materials. The existing techniques of offloading using Mexeflote’s and RCL’s, whilst ideal for amphibious operations, simply could not cope with the increasing volumes and the offload facilities at Port Stanley were still woefully inadequate despite some improvement works completed by the Royal Engineers. This had resulted in excess demurrage costs and a large bottleneck as ships were unable to unload in good time.
The government advertised for innovative solutions to the problem and the tender was won by the Middlesbrough company ITM Offshore who had considerable experience in offshore construction. Unlike the other proposals their solution would be operational in 5 months. Based on technology and systems developed for the North Sea oil industry, the Falkland Islands Intermediate Port and Storage System (FIPASS) was designed to resolve a number of issues; port access, refrigerated warehouse space and personnel accommodation.
Six North Sea oil rig support barges (300×90 ft and about 10,000 DWT each) were connected together and linked to the shore via a 600 foot causeway with a final and smaller barge acting as a floating linkspan which was also used as a RORO interface. The facility also made provision for stern on or Mediterranean Moor and 300m of conventional berthing. Four of the barges carried warehouses, with provision for refrigerated storage. In addition there was accommodation offices, which include a galley and messing facility for 200 persons.
A key point is that it was not only a berthing facility but also had significant storage. The linkspan and causeway were designed and installed by MacGregor Navire (now Cargotec), Harland and Wolff the accommodation facilities and Nuttall installed the mooring dolphins. After construction was complete it was transported south on two heavy lift FLO FLO vessels. the Dyvi Teal and the Dyvi Swan in a phased lift that matched the construction schedule, the heavy lift ships were faster and safer than towing.
The large ships also carried a crane barge that was used in the construction process.
Once in the Falkland Islands they were floated off the heavy lift vessels and installed by ITM staff and Royal Engineers who had previously built all the necessary connecting roads, including one to the Mount Pleasant construction site. The first cargo ship to use Flexiport (MV Leicesterbrook) unloaded 500 tonnes of general cargo and 60 ISO containers in 30 hours, by way of comparison, the same load, offloaded using Mexeflote’s took 21 days. Larger vessels would take up to a month to unload using Mexeflote’s, it was a massive improvement.
Writing about the harbour after FIPASS was up and running, a writer for the Falkland Islands newsletter wrote;
All this cost £23 million, or about £50 million in today’s money but it saved a small fortune in keeping refrigerated vessels offshore and floating cold stores and speeded unloading up immeasurably, in fact, it paid for itself in less than 2 years due largely to the excess shipping costs being eliminated.
The parallels between Mulberry and FIPASS are obvious.
Lessons and Observations
Surprisingly, many of the amphibious logistics issues in 1982 were the same as in 1944.
Argentine commanders considered the most likely British landings would be in the same place as they did, close to Port Stanley. The aim of the amphibious phase was to simply land where Argentine forces were not, no D Day style beach storming.
As in 1944, deception played a massive part in convincing the Argentine defenders that a single landing was either a) unlikely or b) would happen close to Port Stanley
Intelligence about possible landing sites was essential, local knowledge gained by RM personnel over many years, technical information collection and close observation by special forces were all used extensively and all pointed to San Carlos as being the only viable landing location. This lack of knowledge and appreciation clearly led to the Argentine forces not reinforcing the area beyond a small observation force.
Establishing the Beach Support Area took much longer than expected because after the initial attacks at San Carlos the various stores ships were withdrawn with only those unloading allowed in the area. The enemy action had an effect on the build up in a way that was simply not envisaged. These delays meant naval vessels had to endure more punishment in Bomb Alley and ammunition dumps established at various locations which because of the slow build up were vulnerable.
Clearly, the inability to build up the BSA at speed was having a very real impact on losses and if the Argentine commander was sharper and used this delay to counter attack who knows what would have happened.
Original plans only called for half the 3CDO Logistic Supply Regiment to sail South but this was changed after its commander convinced the powers that be that he would need the full complement to defend the beach Support Area (BSA), a ruse on his behalf, the real reason was he knew full that an understrength supply capability would struggle. Was this an example of senior officers not appreciating the needs of the loggies?
Packed fuel (jerrycans) was a problem, the initial landings saw Mexeflote’s ferrying Bedford POD’s (fuel tankers) back and forth between Ajax Bay Red Beach and ships in San Carlos water, refilling at the ship end and discharging into jerry cans at the land end.
This was of course not efficient but given the relatively low numbers of vehicles the task force had at their disposal it was not a battle loser in the way that the lack of fuel has been in the past. Fuel onshore was used mainly for Rapier generators, vehicle charging at the Light Gun Battery locations with some used for the command post and medical generators. Apart from the small number of CVR(T) and BV 202’s the vehicle fuel load was very light. In a more vehicle-centric operation, fuel would have been a significant issue. The lack of a single fuel policy also meant that the fuel distribution system had to cope with aviation fuel, diesel and civgas.
When the Royal Engineers established the FOB at San Carlos they also constructed a bulk fuel facility but this was for aviation fuel only although it did use large rubber dracone’s in lieu of a pipeline. These dracone’s would also be used in post-conflict Port Stanley.
Luck as ever played its part, good and bad. An attack on the BSA by Argentine aircraft was much less serious than it might have been, even though it killed six men and injured many more because two bombs failed to go off. It was also the only attack at Ajax Bay where most of the stores and ammunition were. Better intelligence might have led Argentine aircraft to press home more attacks on this area.
Normal usage rates or (Daily Ammunition Expenditure Rates – DAER) were regularly exceeded, sometimes by spectacular margins.
The difficult terrain and lack of transport meant distributing stores onwards from the Beach Support Area was difficult, getting it onto a beach was one thing but getting it to the point of use was very much another.
A lack of palletisation and poor-quality packing materials, MFO boxes used for stores, for example, created many needless delays.
It was one of the very few modern conflicts fought without the benefit of large numbers of wheeled vehicles and this resulted in a reliance on individual fitness and a finite number of helicopters.
In the week after the landings during which so much punishment was doled out by both sides there was an overwhelming pressure to get going and move out of the beach head but because of the inability of the task force to build up a sufficient logistics strength to do so would have invited much greater casualties and the real possibility of a strategic failure. Despite much second guessing and revisionism, Major General Jeremy Moore was absolutely correct to withstand the pressure and wait until the logistics were in place to move forward.
In the final analysis, Operation Corporate was a logistical triumph but there were definitely opportunities for improvement and resultant changes, especially in organisation and command arrangement, reflected this.