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A little known aspect of the air war over the Falkland Islands in 1982 was the use of an austere Forward Operating Base (FOB) at San Carlos for Harriers and helicopters.
The design of the Harrier was predicated on operating away from large airbases and in austere operating bases that made use of rapidly laid runways, supermarket car parks and roads.
The dispersed operating concept for RAF Harriers was by 1982, both firmly established and well practised. 300m runways and 7 square metre vertical landing pads were the norm for such.
RAF Gutersloh Exercise
During initial planning for the Falklands campaign, a number of options were considered for developing land-based air power.
The preferred option of Rear Admiral Woodward was to establish a forward operating basis on West Falkland that would allow not only Harriers to operate but also Hercules and F-4 Phantoms. Despite the obvious advantages, this was soon discounted as force protection and resource demands became clearer.
Planning the San Carlos FOB
By the 21st of April, the concept of an amphibious landing on East Falkland and an ashore Forward Operating Base for the GR.3 force was maturing and the early-stage designs called for sustained operations over a 22 day period before needing resupply. The location would have air-traffic control and maintenance facilities for 12 aircraft, with a 400m runway to sustain 8 sorties per day.
There was some talk at the end of April about trying to establish a FOB in South Georgia although, for obvious reasons, this did not progress. The FoB would also serve as a replacement for a carrier, should in the medium term, one of them become unavailable due to planned maintenance or enemy activity.
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.
59 Independent Commando Squadron RE selected a location with a natural ski jump, the firm ground near Green Beach and Port San Carlos settlement, the intended location for 3 PARA and 42 CDO to land. The FOB should perhaps, therefore, be more correctly referred to as the Port San Carlos FOB, not the San Carlos FOB.
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. You are to push forward from the bridgehead area, so far as the maintenance of security allows, to gain information, to establish moral and physical domination over the enemy and to forward the ultimate objective of repossession. You will retain operational control of all forces in the Falklands until I establish my Headquarters in the area. It is my intention to do this, aboard Fearless, as early as practicable after the landing. I expect this to be approximately on D+7. It is then my intention to land 5 Infantry Brigade into the beachhead and to develop operations for the complete repossession of the Falkland Islands.
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. Before British Forces had been firmly established onshore, the centre of gravity was clearly the aircraft carriers and their precious cargo of Sea Harriers. Admiral Woodward had to balance the needs of protecting the carriers against protecting the amphibious assault forces in San Carlos Water. This desire to protect the carriers resulted in the decision to keep them far out to the east of the Falkland Islands.
This meant two things, no defence in-depth and what limited air cover could be provided over San Carlos would be extremely limited in duration.
Some had suggested that moving the carriers west or using picket ships to provide outer layer Sea Dart and Sea Wolf defence with Type 22 and Type 42 vessels to provide a layered defence, none of these suggestions was adopted. Therefore, Argentine aircraft could progress unhindered until they reached San Carlos, having used surrounding terrain as cover.
The landings commenced on the 21st of May 1982.
The first engineer tasks were reinforcing the landing points with trackway and digging in tasks, especially for ashore HQ elements.
Establishing the San Carlos FOB
On D+1 the FOB site was reconnoitred, the old Auster strip at San Carlos settlement was also considered but discounted because of load-bearing concerns. On the 23rd the fuel handling equipment came ashore and was installed by 1 Troop 59 Squadron RE, although pump problems meant transfer rates were extremely slow.
2 Troop 9 Parachute Squadron RE also helped with installing the FOB.
On the 24th of May, the Stromness, Norland and Sir Percivale had been emptied of their stores and 11 Field Squadron, the specialist air support squadron, came ashore from Sir Bedivere, unfortunately without any of their stores and equipment, because that was on the Atlantic Conveyor.
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 also saw a large scale attack and the Atlantic Conveyor destroyed by Exocet missiles. This was a huge blow to the construction of the FOB, compounded by the fact that many of the Sappers vehicles were unable to be offloaded from RFA Sir Lancelot because of unexploded bombs. On the Atlantic Conveyor were all of 11 Squadron’s stores, i.e. the FOB and the means to create it (engineering plant etc.
All was not lost though, supplementing the initial stores being used to build the FOB, on RFA Stromness was a small quantity of PSA (Prefabricated Surfacing Airfield) panels that were used for bomb damage repair and vertical take-off and landing pads.
These were intended to be used at a post-conflict Stanley Airport.
PSA panels are 3m long and relatively narrow and secured into the ground using long panel pins, driven flush. The panel’s interlock, in fact, the correct terminology for PSA is PSAI, the I for interlocking. Panels are also available in 37 ft lengths.
Additional Expeditionary Bulk Fuel Handling equipment was also secured from the Stromness.
A Combat Engineer Tractor (one of the two embarked) was used to excavate the bunding for the fuel bladders and install some Class 30 Trackway.
Some of the PSA panels were also flown ashore to ensure the build was not interrupted and the rest were brought ashore at Green Beach, then transferred using vehicles loaned from local farmers.
Emergency Bulk Fuel Installation (EBFI)
On the 2nd of June, the FOB was ready for helicopter operations.
Operating the San Carlos FOB
The first Harriers into the FOB were a pair of Sea Harriers, closely followed by two GR.3’s from HMS Hermes, on the 5th of June, D+15.
The FOB was variously called West Wittering, HMS Sheathbill and Sid’s Strip (after Squadron Leader Syd Morris) depending on what service you belonged to. The final FOB, operated by 11 Squadron RE and commanded by the RAF had a 260m runway, dispersal areas for four aircraft, a separate vertical landing pad and a redesigned and reinstalled bulk fuel installation that could store 18,000 Litres.
Additional landing and refuelling space for helicopters were also provisioned.
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 i.e. much greater time spent on station.
For the GR3’s the FOB meant they could wait there for tasking from a Forward Air Controller.
Fuel was always a problem.
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 day. 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-on’s 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 below 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 approaching the FOB the pilot hovered too low and caused what was assumed to be a PSA 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 other GR.3 managed to make a very skilful landing on what remained of the runway.
Repairs were made as quickly as possible
With two GR.3’s on the ground and much of the runway damaged, two inbound Sea Harriers did not have enough fuel to return to the carriers. Instead, they each carried out a vertical landing on the two assault ships in San Carlos Water, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.
With the FOB out of action, HMS Hermes busy with boiler cleaning and HMS Invincible still far to the east, the available Combat Air Patrol would be constrained and unfortunately, this coincided with a large air attack that resulted in the loss of RFA Sir Galahad and damage to RFA Sir Tristram at Bluff Cove.
The damaged GR.3 was stripped for parts and the FOB repaired.
A detachment of 820 NAS Sea Kings was stationed near 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 downdraft, throwing them to one side and requiring a significant repair effort. With no spare panels available for replacement and several gaps in the runway, the only option was to relay sections of the runway, another huge task.
The 14th saw the surrender of the Argentine forces and the FOB out of action in the early morning due to icing.
From the 5th of June to the 14th of June, the FOB at San Carlos supported over 150 operational sorties. It was then taken over by the RAF in August. A set of improvements was also made to the airstrip at Goose Green.
Although the Forward Operating Base at Port San Carlos loomed large in the overall planning activities, clearly, that planning did not result in consideration of the vulnerability of shipping all the means to establish the FOB on one ship.
The Atlantic Conveyor was a single point of failure and whilst most consider the loss of Chinook’s to be the single greatest impact, the FOB should also be considered a great loss. Because of this, the magnificently improvised nature of the FOB that was established failed to achieve its full potential. It took nearly ten days to establish, far too long, simply because of the lack of specialist plant, suitable equipment and specialist personnel.
The friction between the RAF and RN during the planning for CORPORATE is well documented and I think this extended to deployed Harrier operations from forward operating bases ashore.
An observation on the San Carlos FOB
Had more effective cooperation been established between the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Engineers and Royal Air Force, the potential for expanded FOB operations may have been realised, to the overall benefit of the operation as a whole. The decision to place all the specialist equipment on Atlantic Conveyor, with the benefit of hindsight, was clearly incorrect and a lesson for logistics planners.
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