Ascension Island and the 1982 Falklands Conflict
Ascension Island, in the Mid-Atlantic, would play a decisive role in the 1982 Falkland conflict and arguably, the operation ot retake the islands would have been impossible without it.
Situated in the Atlantic Ocean at 7° 57’ south latitude and 14° 22’ west longitude the volcanic peak island is only 97km2. It was first discovered in 1501 by the Portuguese navigator Juan de Nova and names Ilha de Nossa Señora de Conceiçao (The Island of Our Lady of the Conception”), or Conception Island (de Nova also discovered St Helena). It was thought the navigator failed to properly record the discovery and the island was discovered again, in 1503, also by a Portuguese sailor, on Ascension Day. This time, it was named Ascension Island. For the next few hundred years, the island would see occasional visitors, usually looking for turtle meat. Captain James Cook landed on the island in 1775 and an American ship was shipwrecked there in 1799 until the crew were rescued a few months later by HMS Endymion.
In 1815, Ascension Island was occupied by British forces in order to prevent the island being used to mount a rescue mission for Bonaparte, imprisoned on St Helena. Tristan de Cunha was also garrisoned in a similar manner the year after. Construction of a jetty, drainage, semaphore system, accommodation and fortifications followed. After the death of Bonaparte, Ascension became a sanatorium and staging post for Royal Navy ships. The garrison town was called Georgetown 1829, after King George IV, and continued to grow. In 1899, the first undersea telegraph cable was landed at Ascension Island, from then, it would serve as a communications relay station, the first wireless equipment being installed in 1915. From 1922, the military force was withdrawn and the island administered by the Eastern Telegraph Company until the ETC merged with other similar organisations to become Cable and Wireless.
During WWII, the island was reinforced and also used for signals intelligence.
In 1941, as part of the ongoing discussion with the USA about ‘lend-lease,’ a survey was conducted with a view to establishing an airfield on the island. The best location was found to be at Waterloo Plain and in December 1941, another survey was conducted by members of the US Army Air Corps. Construction began in April 1942, by the US 38th Engineer Regiment (Combat).
Construction was a daunting challenge, completed in 91 days.
Although there had been a few test flights, the first official flight took place on the 10th July 19, 1942. The airfield was used throughout the war, supporting logistics and anti-submarine operations.Ascension Island was also heavily involved in the infamous Laconia Incident.
At the height of operations, Wideawake Field was receiving 1,000 aircraft per month, 98 in one day during 1944. Various construction projects improved and enlarged facilities, including a golf course, and two 420,000 gallon fuel tanks.
A letter to Cable and Wireless from Colonel Mullenix (US Cavalry and commander of the station for much of the war;
In 1947, the airfield was closed down and all US military personnel left. Munitions were destroyed and many facilities removed but the fuel was left for the remaining C&W personnel, enough for the islands cars for nearly a decade. The UK and the USA agreed to establish a military presence on the island and work commenced in 1956 on extended and improving the already extensive facilities.
NASA established a tracking station and it was even used to test the lunar buggy. NASA moved out and the ESA moved in, in 1989.
Ascension Island would be a vital forward operating base for OPERATION CORPORATE and until the task force had established itself in the South Atlantic was the British forces centre of gravity. It was more than halfway to the Falkland Islands (3,750 miles), had a good anchorage and excellent aviation facilities, could be relatively easily secured and importantly, was far from prying eyes.
Without Ascension, and specifically, Wideawake Airfield, CORPORATE would not have been a success.
It’s first Falklands-bound visitors, on the 2nd of April 1982, were Sgt’s Macelreavy and Keeping and five other Royal Signals personnel from 1st Signal Group at Tidworth arrived by air with Tactical Satellite Communications and Diplomatic Communications radios for Governor Rex Hunt. The surrender stopped any forward travel and they eventually embarked on RFA Fort Austin that was on its way to replenish HMS Endurance.
D Squadron SAS also arrived soon after, on the 5th, despite receiving no orders to deploy. D Squadron consisted an HQ troop, elements of 264 Signal Squadron, and 16 (Mobility) Troop, 17 (Boat) Troop, 18 (Air) Troop and 19 (Mountain) Troop. The 84 personnel were flown, with 22 tonnes of palletised stores, by a single RAF VC10 of 10 Squadron.
On the 7th April, the UK announced its intent to impose a 200-mile military exclusion zone.
Ascension was eventually to perform two main functions;
ONE; Transhipment and re-stowage of stores and personnel in support of the deployed force, primarily one of logistics support.
TWO; A base for RAF operations.
Although RAF Wideawake had a long runway and extensive facilities, the demands placed on it exceeded its capacity and therefore, that capacity had to be augmented.
Aviation fuel was discharged at Catherine Point using a floating pipeline and transferred to the tank farm at Georgetown, 3 miles from the airfield. Fuel was ordinarily transferred from the tank farm to the airfield using bowsers. This quickly became a bottleneck, even with an additional 12 RAF bowsers, so 1 Troop, 51 (Construction) Squadron Royal Engineers installed a 4-mile long pipeline from a tank farm to Wideawake Airfield to replace bowsers. An additional 180,000-gallon bulk fuel facility was also installed at the airfield by the Royal Engineers and operated by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.By the end of operations, Ascension had transferred just under six million gallons of aviation fuel from US tankers.
As ships started to arrive, Ascension was used to move supplies between ships and from the airfield to ships.
Accommodation buildings were renovated and fitted out by teams of Royal Engineers and local cable and Wireless personnel. A tented facility was also erected at English Bay and the 4449 Mobile Support Squadron USAF ‘loaned’ a number of prefabricated accommodation units. By mid-April, the facilities could support in excess of 1,500 personnel.
Early in May, a single Sea King from 202 Squadron and Chinook from 18 Squadron covered air transport, particularly stores movement and replenishment for shipping.
Personnel were also afforded an opportunity to train and test weapons
47 Air Despatch Squadron prepared stores for air despatch and the Royal Corps Signals operated a communications facility.
Naval Party 1222, arriving on the 6th of April, managed stores receiving and shipment, various Fleet Air Arm personnel undertook aircraft maintenance tasks and an RN Wessex HU.5 provided additional VERTREP capacity. 29 Transport and Movement Regiment, Royal Corps of Transport, together with RN and RAF teams, operated the Movement Control Check through which personnel and stores would move.
Recognising the importance of the location and the impact on the overall operation if Ascension were to be attacked (however unlikely) the British forces took prudent steps to defend it. Local air defence was provided first by 3 Sidewinder armed Harrier GR.3’s until three of the much more suitable 29(F) Squadron Phantom FGR.2’s from 24th of May. A mobile air defence radar was also installed and operated on Green Mountain. Ground defence provided by HQ No 3 Wing and 15 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment. From the 10th of May, a 100-mile radius control zone was implemented.
Air transport to and from Ascension was provided by VC-10, C-130’s and even a number of ex-RAF Belfast’s chartered from Heavy Lift Cargo Airlines. USAF C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxy strategic airlift aircraft also provided a great deal of capacity, as did a number of civilian 707’s.
On the 18th of April, Wideawake became the busiest airport in the world with over 500 aircraft movements in a single day. During the campaign, it handled 2,500 fixed wing and 10,600 helicopter flights. The sheer number of aircraft movements provided many scheduling challenges, a number of aircraft, for example, were turned around in the air because higher priority aircraft were inbound.
It is interesting to note that the dispersal areas could accommodate twenty-four large aircraft and the 10,000-foot long runway could handle any aircraft in service. Perhaps more interesting is that at the time, it was actually being run by PANAM under contract to the USAF and that the contract allowed for a maximum of 285 aircraft movements per year.
On the 2nd of May, the Atlantic Conveyor arrived at Ascension Island.
The Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s, after a record-breaking single seat ferry flights from the UK, were flown onto the Atlantic Conveyor and covered with the same Dri-Clad bags that protected the helicopters.
8 Sea Harriers and 6 Harrier GR3’s were to be carried South.
Although many focus on the Black Buck missions other RAF aircraft provided an invaluable part of the overall air campaign.
On the 20th of April, a single RAF Victor, flying from Wideawake, conducted a radar reconnaissance that covered one hundred and fifty thousand square miles. Lasting just under 15 hours, it established a world record for a reconnaissance flight.
C-130 Hercules would mostly be used for parachuting supplies and the occasion person to the fleet. Early in April, two of 47 Squadron’s five crews were sent to Ascension Island to deliver parachute supply drops and the other three began a hasty programme of training and development for a new task of resupply beyond the un-refuelled range of the Hercules. There would be a point at which the fleet would be beyond the range of the Hercules, even those fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks.
Ex-Andover fuel tanks were fitted inside the cargo hold and INS and NVG capabilities added. Experiments and clearance trials confirmed operating procedures, arriving on Ascension Island on the 14th of May, the aircraft conducted the first long range refuelled air despatch mission on the 16th
Eight personnel and approximately 500kg of stores were parachuted into the sea 60 miles north of Stanley, to the awaiting replenishment vessel, RFA Fort Austin. 24 Hours and 45 Minutes after take-off, Hercules XV200 landed back at Wideawake, and no, that time is not a spelling mistake. 44 air despatch flights delivered everything from laser-guided Paveway II bombs and spare parts to SAS personnel and the new CO of 2 PARA after Goose Green.
Eleven RAF Hercules would be converted to enable inflight refuelling and four of these would also be converted to single point tankers with the Mk 18B refuelling package.
The Nimrod MR.2 (PROBED) replaced the MR1’s from 15th May and these included an ability to refuel inflight, Sidewinder missiles, new sensors and even thousand pound bombs and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Missions included various surveillance tasks off the coast of Argentina and around the Falkland Islands, each requiring multiple refuelling operations from Victor tankers. Nimrod’s were also tasked with search and rescue missions and localised surveillance around Ascension Island.
Nimrod’s would also provide support to the Black Buck missions by guiding the Vulcan’s to their Victor tankers using their Searchwater radars.
The Victor strategic bombers were converted into hose and drogue refuelling tanker aircraft in 1965.
The refuelling Victors were the unsung heroes of operations from Wideawake.
They supported flights from the UK and onward to the Falklands for various aircraft. Of the RAF’s 23 strong Victor K2 fleet, only three did not participate in operates from Wideawake, one being in maintenance and the other two supporting training and UK operations.