The Recapture of South Georgia
by David Kenney
This is a draft chapter of a book on the Falklands War to be published by David Kenney. Corrections and comments invited to Fanueil34@aol.com
The author graduated from Boston Latin School, Harvard College and Harvard Business School. He retired as Captain after serving 31 years in the Naval Intelligence Reserve.
Galtieri's seizure of the Falklands could not have been worse timed for Margaret Thatcher. Race riots in English cities, high unemployment and back bench grumbling had eroded her dominance over the Conservative Party and the House of Commons. After the Falkands fell she fired her Foreign Secretary, useful and necessary under the circumstances, but had to accept as a replacement Francis Pym(1) whose hawkishness towards the Argentineans remained in doubt until war's end. Thatcher and Pym shared a mutual dislike and mistrust. Her Foreign Office had commited that gravest of burocratic blunders, it had gestated a minor perplexity into a major crisis. She could not repose confidence in her intelligence community after its failure to assess accurately Argentina's overt preparations for war. A new political party, the Social Democrats, had risen to a 40% approval rating in nation wide polls and threatened a major victory over the Conservatives at looming local elections. Unlike Churchill, Hume or Macmillan she had never participated in a war let alone led her country in an armed conflict(2).
As soon as the very visible and expensive preparations for war were put in train allies and opponents alike clamored for quick results(3). But Galtieri and his captured kelpers were not Thatcher's sole points of concern. It was not altogether clear that Britain's professional military were of one mind about the repossession's chances of success(4). Senior military men abroad issued mordant warnings about an operation for which British forces had neither the equipment nor the expertise to complete. Setting aside her allies' skepticism and her enemies' hostility Thatcher plunged her dwindling political capital into a distant venture of whose causes and possible results few knew much(5). A war cabinet was formed(6) and the dogs of war began to bay.
Major fleet units homebound from spring exercises near Gibraltar reversed course, loaded war stores and sailed southwards. Other Royal Navy ships were put on four hours notice to move. The navy's tiny amphibious staff, moribund after cuts in its budget, cobbled together ships, men and plans for an opposed landing over unknown beaches. The Royal Marines' 3 Commando Brigade, Britain's sole amphibious force, was put on 72 hours notice to move and all its officers and men recalled from leave, schools and even a marriage. With all of that many weeks would pass before troops could assault Port Stanley. Meantime Thatcher needed a dramatic event to keep her cabinet with her, to put Galtieri on the defensive, to still her domestic opponents, to preserve US support, to rally the free world to her side and to convince the captive kelpers that they might get their freedom back. The cur dogs already nipped at her heels(7). James Callaghan, Labor's spokesman on defense, accused Thatcher of a "gross blunder" in letting the Falklands fall(8). From Thatcher's own party the Falkland Islands lobby shouted: "I told you so" so stridently that a Foreign Office spokesman was moved to retort that: "Air Commodore Frow (the lobby's spokesman) has no official standing whatever.The crisis is entirely a matter for the British government."(9) There was the Argentinean angle too. If despite his self-adulatory bluster Galtieri could be persuaded that Thatcher meant business he might heed the provisions of UN Resolution 502 and quit the islands before bloodshed began.
By 3 April 1982, Anthony Parsons, Britain's delegate to the UN, had shepherded through the UN's Security Council Resolution 502. That called for Argentina's immediate removal of its armed forces from the Falklands as a condition precedent to negotiation about Falklands' future sovereignty. Parson's brilliant diplomacy at the UN, a bare few hours after the Argentina's invasion, put the Falklands center stage in world affairs and convinced a heterogeneous assortment of 3rd world, industrialized and non English speaking states to oppose in public the junta's military adventurism. Parson's diplomatic triumph was complete. Absent Argentina's removal of its military forces Britain could now take military steps to retake the Falklands.The Soviet Union failed to veto the British resolution and non-aligned states mutely resisted the Argentinean ambassador's pleas for their help. Much to the surprise of Argentina's foreign office settlement of border disputes by armed force was not a precedent modern nation states could stomach. The reasons were clear. Even passive approval of Argentina's invasion would condone military initiatives almost anywhere else along the Amur River for example where China and the Soviet Union contested in a not always cold war(10). Thenceforth Argentina's diplomacy remained tentative and defensive.
Passage of Resolution 502 gave Thatcher room and time to maneuver, but not much. She could sequester Argentina's holdings in London, stop trade between the two countries and lobby for other nations' support. Yet no cheap or easy answers to repossession of the islands presented themselves. She could not attack Argentinean ships on the high seas because no war had been declared. She could not bomb the Argentinean mainland because so disproportionate a response would turn new found allies against her and she could not yet seize the Falklands because Britain's military was not in place(11). Parson's victory at the UN gave his Prime Minister a decaying asset that delay or a false step could quickly squander. Now that Thatcher had negotiating momentum she had to follow up Parson's triumph with military accomplishment that could not await the month long marshalling of Britain's invasion force. The British middle classes whose wrath at Argentina's theft the Prime Minister had so deftly exploited could not long exist on rhetoric; they needed blood. In twenty predominantly labor boroughs 24% of potential Tory voters considered the Falklands crisis as the most important or an important factor in the upcoming elections(12). Had it not happened Argentina's invasion of South Georgia would have to have been invented.
The seismic forces that split South America from Africa eons ago forced layers of material upwards from the earth's crust; a few broke the oceans' surface. One such is South Georgia, a mountainous mass of 1450 sq. miles shaped like a North West to South East hot dog, half permanently covered in ice. Although a merchant captain, de la Roche, may have sighted the island in 1675 Captain James Cook RN in Resolution was first to set foot on it. He named that desolate mass and claimed it for the crown on January 17,1775. At 54 deg S and 36 deg W South Georgia falls victim to some of the world's worst weather. "The wild rocks raised their lofty summits till they were lost in the clouds and the valleys laid buried in everlasting snow. Not a tree or shrub was to be seen, no not even big enough to make a toothpick. I landed in three different places and took possession of the country in his Majesty's name under a discharge of arms(13)." Until the late 20th century no one else coveted the island and the name and ownership stuck.
Pitiless weather and jagged topography, many mountains surpass five thousand feet, make the island impassable for most of its length to all but the most intrepid. Storms with 100 MPH winds are common. Violent downdrafts swoop from peaks down to ground level with little warning and savage one part of the island while leaving others in frigid calm. Ice bergs calved from sheer cliffs compete in size and menace with their larger cousins floating up from the Antarctic. Because these formations do not always show on radar screens navigation inshore, especially at night when chunks of ice slink in unnoticed, is a hazardous affair. Rubble from the wind scoured mountain sides renders them unstable underfoot. Climbers are few. Trees do not grow. Tussock grass feeds rats and a few thousand reindeer while seals, penguins and a few dozen species of bird live off the riches of the sea.
By 1960 modern methods of capturing whales en masse ended South Georgia's only economic role because there were few whales left to kill and little whale blubber left to be rendered in Grytviken's giant stills(14). A benign if unintended consequence of this sad practice occurred here. Killing whales beyond their rates of reproduction caused an overabundance of krill, a nutritional bonanza for South Georgia's seals and penguins whose numbers have soared. By 1965 the whalers, mostly Norwegian some Japanese and Russians, had left for good; their machinery rusted into scrap. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the odd lost mariner and a few daring travelers clustered around Grytviken, Husvik, Leith and Stromness, the only settlements worth the name. The Survey's head was the island's de facto chief magistrate, port captain, post master and immigration agent. All in all South Georgia was not a fortuitous place to begin a war.
Argentina's capture of South Georgia, its small Royal Marines party and scientists from the BAS was at first blush a public humiliation for Thatcher. (see The Argentine Invasion of South Georgia ). In fact Argentina's occupation presented her a needed benison because recapture of that island became an immediate possibility. The defeat of ten thousand Argentinean troops in East Falkland eight hundred miles to the north would take blood, treasure and time. A hundred or so unwary Argentinean troops skulking out of the wind in wooden houses was another matter. A good chance existed that South Georgia could be repurchased on the cheap.
Thatcher ordered Admiral Fieldhouse on 7 April 1982 to reestablish British presence on South Georgia(15). The order was based on a false premise because British subjects, members of the British Antarctic Survey, remained at large in several posts around the island. A backward look at British military policy in the 1970's is needed here. It must be recalled that the costs of maintaining large ground and air forces on NATO's central front and ballistic missile submarines at sea had foreclosed solo British operations outside Europe. The men, equipment and planning for such ventures simply did not exist. Successive governments and their Treasuries had not given the Ministry of Defense enough resources to match commitments, a free Falklands for example, that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had kept in place. As a consequence the fragile command and control structure for the forces intended to seize the Falklands was an unpracticed expedient. The recapture of South Georgia burdened an embryonic organization, itself unsure of its specific goal and the means at hand to achieve it, with a task that had not been tried since WW2, the expulsion of invaders from British territory(16).
On 7 April 1982 Colonel Richard Preston, Chief of Staff of the Royal Marines' Commando Forces, telephoned LtCol. Nick Vaux CO of the Royal Marines' 42 Commando to set aside one infantry company, equipped for Arctic warfare, with supporting elements for a move on six hours notice to Ascension Island(17). From there the tiny marine force, all arctic trained, with additions from the Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Army's Special Air Service (SAS) would sail south into winter waters in order to recapture an unfamiliar island from a hostile force of unknown size and capability. Vaux nominated his second in command Major J. M. G. Sheridan RM as land commander of this force.
Though best suited for the job, Sheridan's absence from Vaux' command as it organized itself for the attack on Falklands deprived his unit and 3 Commando Brigade of a critical human asset. Vaux sensed that invasion of the Falklands, if it came to that, would be a boots in the mud affair and that victory would hang on basic soldiering in the wet and cold rather than on the high-tech gadgetry bought for combat on the North European plain. Vaux' 2nd in command fit Preston's requirements precisely. Sheridan, son and grandson of Indian Army officers, was the quintessential field grade infantry officer. He had entered the Royal Marines at age eighteen, received his commission and led troops in Aden, Borneo, Malaya, Oman and in the UK. He was a graduate of Camberly Staff College and had helped to organize and train a Commando for the Imperial Iranian Navy. A world class mountaineer and skier, he had been a member of the British Olympic Biathon team from 1969 to 1972.
Recapture of South Georgia was a zero sum game. Victory would be a thumb in Galtieri's eye. Failure in South Georgia, or even a tepid lack of success would delay or eliminate capture of the Falklands, solidify Argentina's claim to those islands and almost certainly end Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister. Britain's inclination to interfere in military affairs outside Europe was moribund after Suez; defeat in the Falklands would bury the notion. Even in Europe Britain's position as America's best ally there would be questioned if not doubted. She could not afford a picture in the world's press of a second group of captured Royal Marines lying face down in the mud. Margaret Thatcher had never met Major J. M. G. Sheridan RM, but she had unknowingly put her political future in his hands.
On 7 April 1982 Admiral Fieldhouse ordered Captain Brian Young RN in HMS Antrim to proceed at best speed to Ascension Island. Young was concurrently placed in charge of CTG 317.9 the navy, marine and army force intended to recapture South Georgia. Sheridan was the commander land force (CLF). Besides Sheridan's marines Young had four ships: HMS Antrim and HMS Plymouth and a tanker RFA Tidespring. The fourth ship, HMS Endurance, had been the Falkland's station ship and its Captain, Nick Barker, had lengthy tactical experience in the amphibious operating area.. Young had no air support but did have a Wessex 3 ASW helo on Antrim, a Lynx utility helo on Plymouth and two Wessex 5 light helicopters on Tidespring.
Fieldhouse' directive of 9 April 1982 laid out the chain of command for Operation Corporate the name given to the retaking of the Falklands. Fieldhouse followed standard US, NATO and Allied command and control procedures for amphibious operations: the battle fleet commander, amphibious commander and land force commander are equals whatever their rank and pay grade.The Amphibious Group commander directs the amphibious force until the troops complete a secure landing and the land force commander can take up his units' fighting in a coherent and sustainable way. From that moment the land force commander orders fire support missions, logistics over the beach or by air and the host of military tasks that let him complete the operation. In fact the naval commander's only job is to get the troops and equipment onto the beach with as little damage as possible to either so that the ground mission gets done quickly with the fewest casualties(18). Sheridan's tiny force was the sole justification for Young's naval group and the point of the British spear.
The choice of Brian Young to lead CTG 317.9 was as odd as the mission he was asked to complete. He was a successful aviator and commanding officer with no over the beach amphibious experience. Both he and his hard used ship(19) were on the point of retirement when ordered to head south. He had little experience of working with Royal Marines(20). His scant knowledge of the proposed operating area came from books and briefings. Many observers then and since believe that Captain Nick Barker in HMS Endurance, the Falklands station ship, was the better choice. He had commanded a combat ship (HMS Arrow) equipped with Exocet missiles, the surface weapon that the Argentinean navy would most likely use against him. He had watched the Argentinean buildup from close at hand and knew his patch of the South Atlantic. He had landed on South Georgia and walked about. His helicopter pilots were the only British flyers competent to give the amphibious force first hand guidance on South Georgia's unique terrain and awful weather. He knew personally, not by message or letter, many of the British Antarctic Survey's staff including those few still living free on the island. A permanent detachment of Royal Marines lived aboard Endurance and had ship's duties as well. One marine was a ship's cook and another the ship's butcher. Mutual respect had flowered. Barker knew the Argentinean Navy's strengths and weaknesses better than any other Royal Navy officer. He had met and sized up many of the Argentinean officers who were now his enemies. Endurance had a full set of communications gear and regularly intercepted Argentinean military message traffic. Tactical reasoning supported the choice of Barker, too. Managing a ship in combat is difficult enough without ordering other ships and troops; it would have been more efficient if it came to a sea fight to let Barker command the squadron while Brian Young fought his own ship without the need to care for other combatants. Still Young enjoyed Fieldhouse' confidence and a close relationship with Rear Admiral Woodward CTU 317.8 his senior officer during the just finished spring exercises.
Young and Sheridan, the land force commander, faced unique problems that had little to do with their Argentinean opponents. The efficacy of a system to command, control and communicate with a patch work force operating 8000 miles from London was unproven and questionable because the British military had trained for years almost exclusively to fight a NATO war in concert with US and German allies. Staffs, logistics and battle plans, communications' links, weapons' purchases, training and intelligence efforts were aimed at convincing Soviet leaders that an attack by the Warsaw Pact would fail and that in the event their tank armies would be destroyed. The logistics of fighting an air, land and sea war 8000 miles from London had never been seriously pondered. The Royal Navy was not prepared to fight a battle whose loss could sunder the Anglo-American relationship that Britain's seaborn nuclear deterrent was meant to preserve. No standing orders existed to fight a war that involved amphibious landings a few hundred miles north of the Antarctic circle. As it turned out, neither 3 Commando Brigade nor its follow on 5 Infantry Brigade knew best how to load their gear for an amphibious assault i.e. stow the most needed equipment on top and the least necessary on the bottom. Priceless training time, was lost in reloading both amphibious and supply ships at Ascension Island and on the run south. For that matter success in Paraquat and in the whole Falklands venture hung more on the intelligence, courage and drive of rather junior infantry officers and their NCOs than on staffs' directives.
In contrast to the fleet's grand sendoff from Plymouth, Operation Paraquat was conceived and set in motion under great secrecy. Clandestinity usually wreaths military moves with importance, sometimes efficiency gains, and Paraquat was no exception. Fieldhouse established a Paraquat cell at Northwood separate from other Falklands communications and knowledge of ships' movements was restricted to a dozen or so people. On 8 April 1982 Sheridan's men, Captain Chris Nunn's M company from Vaux' 42 Commando, were sequestered in the unit's gymnasium and allowed no contact with the outside world. By 10 April 1982 two VC-10s had flown Sheridan's force of 132 men and their equipment to Ascension Island. Any thought that the repossession of South Georgia was to be a sideshow ended with Fieldhouse' message on 11 April 1982 to Thompson and Clapp that stipulated repossession of South Georgia as of equal importance to repossession of the Falklands: "as current intelligence indicates clear advantage in landing South Georgia earliest(21)." Thatcher was in a hurry. Woodward was of a different mind. He called Sheridan, the land force commander, back from Antrim yet failed to see the Royal Marines Major. Apparently Woodwardfailed to realize that Sheridan's success justified his ships' and crews' efforts. To this day the reason behind this fruitless trip remains obscure(22).
Modern warfare on the ground demands more than men firing their personal weapons. Vaux and Sheridan assembled as much of a balanced force as they could on such short notice. Awaiting departure from the gymnasium they added two .81MM mortar teams, four signalers, two sections from the commando's reconnaissance troop and three medics including a surgeon. Sheridan was also told that a section of SBS and a troop from the 22 SAS Regiment would join his force as reconnaissance elements. These additions were especially useful because they could land and reconnoiter from their small boats while fleet units remained undiscovered at sea. Sheridan's force still lacked artillery and air support without which it could be isolated and ultimately destroyed by any opponent possessing weapons heavier than .5 caliber machine guns. This deficiency was to be remedied in part by Captain Brian Young's CTU 317.9 which contained two of the Royal Navy's last gun ships, Antrim and Plymouth. Their 4 x 4.5" guns gave Sheridan a sustained firing rate, if both ships acted in concert, of 24 rounds per minute, enough to keep defending forces down in their trenches while his force made their landing. A Naval Gunfire Support Party (NGS)(23) assigned to direct the navy's gunfire gave Sheridan some confidence that he would not be out gunned at least as long as decent weather let the ships remain close ashore.
Sheridan's force as it arrived at Ascension contained 132 officers and men plus 24 Special Warfare troops. His problems had just begun and they were serious. A Royal Marines officer who had arrived at Ascension before Sheridan had set up a small arms range where troops could reset their weapons' sights after the bumpy trip from Britain. While there Sheridan learned that Northwood had ordered an entire squadron of SAS, D Squadron (60 men) commanded by Major Cedric Delves, and two more SBS teams to join his force(24). Northwood wanted seven patrols to scout the island. Common sense shouted that a reduced company of Royal Marines did not need and would have trouble finding valid employment for a reconnaisance force nearly half the size of the original force. More worrisome was the fact that Sheridan had to learn this critical fact informally on a scrap of torn paper from a fellow officer rather through his chain of command. He was not asked if he could use additional help; it was landed on him without discussion or the courtesy of a message.
Ordering seven patrols to infiltrate South Georgia, an island which none of the service chiefs in London knew, demonstrated micro management at its most meddlesome and most risky. Inserting seven patrols ashore instead of two increased the possibility of compromise geometrically. The horrible weather that might mask the patrols' insertions could also prevent them or prevent the men's exfiltration. The decision of when, where and how many to put ashore might better have been left to Young and Sheridan. Not one of Young's force had either adequate space or water or transport to the beach for these additions. Unlike buildings on land, ships at sea cannot add more room. The extra SAS men and their gear thrust an almost intolerable burden into Brian Young's once tranquil world. The ships' evaporators could not keep up with the boilers', crews' and passengers' need for fresh water and rationing began. This wretched excess fueled speculation that senior military persons at Northwood and perhaps Thatcher herself believed that the Falklands matter could be concluded in Britain's favor by a successful attack on South Georgia and that the SAS craved a major part of the action and the credit. Northwood's interference with decisions that should have been made on scene by the tactical commanders began a practice that continued throughout the war and did nothing to hasten its end.
Loadout for Operation Paraquat was a microcosm of the Falklands campaign. Sheridan's force was split immediately because no one ship in Young's squadron could carry all the personnel and their kit. Most of M Company, the core assault force, went to RFA Tidespring, a tanker, while the mortar crews, communicators, medics and naval gunfire support team went with Sheridan to HMS Antrim. Tidespring was put in the unenviable position of carrying volatile fuels and live ammunition with the immediate prospect of unloading both in rough seas. By 13 April 1982 Captain Young had been told what Sheridan knew informally: that three troops of D Squadron, about sixty men with its command element, would join his force. Through the heroic efforts of both crew and the on board marines Air Troop and Mobility Troop along with Major Delves and their great amount of kit were made safe aboard Antrim. Captain John Hamilton and his Mountain Troop went aboard Plymouth. Delves had black box communications with SAS headquarters that Sheridan did not see. It was clear that the unrequested SAS manning imposed upon Sheridan had the potential of making Operation Paraquat an SAS operation dispite the fact that he was the nominal commander of the landing force. Unity of command was to be observed in the breach.
Young's squadron rendezvoused on 14 April 1982 south of Ascension and began its run south with his assault force riding a tanker while the command elements of the three embarked military organizations lived aboard an ancient destroyer commanded by a naval officer who had never been ordered to complete an opposed amphibious landing. Neither Young nor Sheridan had a trained amphibious staff to work out problems among the very different organizations. No troop reinforcements, logistics support or air support were available. Young and Sheridan would fight hopefully the same war 8000 miles from home with what they carried. If either Tidespring or Antrim suffered major battle damage or mechanical failure the mission would abort. No unanaimous support came from the homefront either. Unbeknownst to Sheridan or Young Fieldhouse told his task group commanders at Ascension Island on 17 April 1982 that the Army's staff "remained unconvinced of the necessity and likely success of an amphibious operation. ....He told us he might be required to repossess the Falkland Islands but only when sea control was firmly established and South Georgia recaptured(25)." No one questioned the military competence and drive of Young's and Sheridan's force. It was their seniors' waffling and the improvidence of the budgeteers that put their success in question. Seldom has so much weighed on a gim-crack military force slapped together in a few days(26).
Endurance's reliable but plodding thirteen knots limited Young's force to about 350 miles advance per day. The travel time was well spent. A makeshift operations room with adequate ship to shore and ship to helicopter communications was installed aboard Antrim. Maps and charts blossomed on available bulkheads. The young marines trained incessantly in their cramped quarters and on Tidespring's more capacious decks. They consumed months of training allowances firing at targets thrown over the side(27). A major problem had to do with getting the reconaissance and assault forces ashore. Young's four ships carried no landing craft and his crews did not know how to use them anyway. Antrim carried a Wessex 3 Anti-Submarine (ASW) helicopter; Plymouth had 1 Wasp ASW helicopter and Endurance had 2 Wasps. Tidespring carried 2 Wessex 5 used mainly to transfer cargo between ships. The helicopters, none built or configured to handle more than a few passengers were already overworked from cross decking men and equipment. Cargo transfers and ASW patrols are placid affairs. Now the pilots had to train themselves for the covert insertion and recovery of the SAS and the landing, perhaps under fire, of a Royal Marines' assault force(28). Flying low under electronic silence and popping up to do a visual and brief radar search of hostile seas was as novel for the pilots as was the prospect they might be fired upon by ground troops hiding behind the next snow covered hill. Ever resourceful maintainers fitted a few GPMG in helos' doors for self protection and a modest capability for suppressive fire.
There was a very human side to this expedition, too. Naval ships are run by a hierarchy. The freshest faced seaman knows his place in the system. When the skipper or the officer of the watch orders: "Come left15 deg." the person at the wheel turns the wheel 15 deg to port and no questions are asked. On the other hand ground operations are more collegial. COs take full responsibility for their missions but usually seek their juniors' and seniors' views and occasional objections. Foolish is the young officer who does not discuss his plans with his senior sergeants. Captain Brian Young had aboard Antrim besides himself 4 commanding officers: Sheridan, Commander Land Forces (CLF); Delves, CO of D Squadron SAS; Eve, head of the Naval Gunfire Group and a junior but veteran head of the SBS detachment. In addition Antrim carried a senior helicopter pilot who headed the crews and maintainers of the embarked Wessex 3. It is a tribute to the sheer professionalism of these very competent and necessarily strong minded men that their different worlds did not fatally collide and that they all strained towards the mission's success.
Northwood's orders to Captain Brian Young to repossess South Georgia on 21 April 1982 were stipulated in his warning order of 14 April 1982 to Major Sheridan(29). With minimum damage to facilities and personnel Sheridan was to:
Recapture Grytviken and Leith.
Neutralize Argentinean Communications.
Capture or kill Argentinean military.
Arrest and remove Argentinean civilians.
Sheridan turned to his reconnaissance force and on 16 April 82 ordered D Squadron: "to establish covert patrols to determine enemy strength and disposition in Stromness, Husvik and Leith(30)." The SBS was similarly ordered to cover Grytviken and King Edward Point. It was at this point that misadventures compounded by misjudgments nearly prevented South Georgia's recapture(31).
Captain John Hamilton commanded 19 Troop (Mountain Troop) of the 22 Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). His Mission Order: "Operations Center 21 April 1982 BK 1 Ser 087" para 7 stated: "To recon Leith, Stromness, Husvik and E. Fortuna Bay for a Squadron sized attack." The Mission Orders' tasks were: "To find routes across Fortuna Glacier, Breakwind Ridge and Konig Glacier." Major Delves, the D Squadron commander insisted on an eight kilometer covert approach to the reconnaissance targets for fear of warning the Argentinean garrison. It could just as well have been argued that a blatant landing preceeded and supported by naval gunfire would frighten green, frozen and isolated troops into quick surrender.
BAS members who had been to Fortuna Glacier insisted to Delves and to Hamilton that Fortuna was virtually impassable especially with winter just breaking. Sheridan, an experienced Himalyan climber who had been head of the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Cadre joined the voices raised against landing on the glacier(32). Other opponents of this venture, crew and pilots from Endurance who had foot on the ground experience on South Georgia, argued that crevasses as big as London buses made it virtually certain that the SAS men could not drag their pulks (sleds) any meaningful distance even in fair weather(33). If a storm broke, as was likely now that winter had just begun, Hamilton's men would have no choice but to hunker down for an unpredictable period perhaps more than the five days allocated for the reconnaissance. The pragmatic pessimists did not sway him and he sought affirmative advice where he knew he could find it. Delves went aboard Endurance and used its satellite communications to speak with two very experienced Himalyan climbers, Stokes and Peacock, at SAS Headquarters in Britain who advised Hamilton and Delves that Fortuna Glacier could be conquered. Peacock later said he would not have gone against Sheridan's judgment if he had known that it was indeed Sheridan who opposed taking that route(34). In the end Major Delves and Captain Hamilton decided to lift mountain troop onto Fortuna Glacier.
Delves' and Hamilton's insistance that their recon mission be clandestine and thus traverse Fortuna Glacier was a counsel of perfection. Had they looked at their military problem from their opponents' point of view a different picture would have appeared(35). If the Argentine garrison considered a British attack possible or probable it had three choices besides flight by sea or surrender: first, dig in against an attack, second; get destroyed by gunfire from Plymouth and Antrim in their trenches or in BAS quarters; third flee without tactical integrity into the mountains there to die of exposure and starvation. Delves' requirement for a wholly clandestine mission fit standard SAS practices. It was a laudable but disengenuous goal. Soviet satellites overflew the area regularly and Captain Nick Barker in HMS Endurance took scheduled precautions against them(36). Admiral Fieldhouse had already warned his subordinates against transmitting when American satellites were overhead. BAS' Director signalled in the clear to his men on Lyell Glacier that: "Moving to Grytviken possibly involves risk of involvement in later fighting."(37) It is a good rule in such matters that when two parties besides the annointed know hitherto secret information many others almost certainly have an inkling of the matter at hand. By 21 April 1982 it is very likely that several thousand people of different nationalities, except perhaps Argentinean, knew what was about to happen to the well chilled garrisons in Grytviken and Leith(38).
Young and Sheridan knew, on the other hand, almost exactly what they might face once British troops had landed. No ships had reenforced the Argentinean garrison who had no air cover and no artillery. The island could not support more than a few hundred persons, in winter probably fewer. The quality and fighting spirit of the Argentineans was unknown but reasonable men could assume that their1st line troops, always in short supply, were posted either on the Chilean border or on the Falklands themselves and that those few on South Georgia were not assiduously patrolling the mountains now that winter had begun, but rather had esconced themselves in BAS' snug wooden houses(39). South Georgia had no airfield. Troops could not be flown in and no hostile naval activity had been noted. No naval fueling facilities, magazines or repair shops existed for modern warships. The Argentinean occupiers would defend their conquest if they chose to do so, with what little they had at hand. Winter would argue against their retreat into the sub-freezing hinterlands. In short South Georgia was a primitive and isolated military outpost with wretched living conditions eight hundred miles from Falklands that posed no threat to the outside world. It was scarcely defensible. Thatcher and her advisors had got that right.
As Hamilton and Delves planned their clandestine insertion from the ships at sea teams from the BAS who were on the ground performed their own reconnaissance. BAS' Peter Stark who had lived on South Georgia for two years was flown back from the island to HMS Endurance for the express purpose of dissuading Hamilton's troop from trying the Fortuna route. The BAS parties, thirteen plus two wildlife photographers, at Bird Island and Schliepper Bay at the northern tip of the island, at Lyell Glacier and at St. Andrew's Bay, south of Grytviken, traversed their areas on foot and met no Argentinean military. On 20 April 1982 Tony North and Myles Plant watched Cumberland Bay from Barff Point and discovered nothing. Ian Barker and Damien Sanders stood on the high ground between East and West Cumberland Bay and saw neither Argentinean ground nor naval activity. They found no trace of any Argentinean patrols ever having surveilled those likely pieces of military ground. No planes were heard either. The watchers, although not military, had surveyed all but a small area of likely Argentine ground and naval activity and more if the foul weather were considered. It was clear to them that the Argentinean invaders had confined themselves to the comforts such as they were of village life. The BAS patrols, all of whom had useful but short range radios, reported their findings back to Northwood with great speed in a complex radio arrangement that went through South Orkney to Ascension Island thence to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. There Dr. Bernard Law transferred the data to Rear Admiral Tony Wheatley RN at Northwood. At Cambridge BAS headquarters entertained, prior to the the Fortuna Glacier incident, a constant flow of visitors from the Royal Navy, SAS, SBS and various other parties all eager to learn what the intrepid researchers on South Georgia daily took as normal existance. Counsel was freely given(40).
Given the plethora of current data available to SAS headquarters and to Capt. Hamilton his mission order astounds: "To date only information is available from studying maps, air photos and limited local knowledge from BAS personnel and the members of the crew from HMS Endurance."(41) This statement, though patently erroneous, formed the basis for the SAS' plan to take the hazardous route across Fortuna Glacier. In the interests of a clandestinity that was clearly unnecessary Delves and Hamilton rejected first hand information of crucial tactical importance gained by trained scientific observers and by the crew and pilots of HMS Endurance. The cruel fact is that on board Antrim and Endurance, on South Georgia itself and lurking in the British intelligence system were good information and mature judgment on it that most reasonable leaders would have taken as cause to change routes for observing Husvik, Leith and Stromness. Delves and Hamilton were men of their time and exemplars of a splendid bellicist culture. In the matter of Fortuna Glacier they went beyond reason and common sense.
Three helicopters took D Squadsron's Mountain Troop to Fortuna Glacier: Lcdr. Ian Stanley's Wessex 3 from Antrim and from Tidespring's C Flight two Wessex 5s flown by Lt. Mike Tidd RN and Flight Lt. Andy Pulford RAF. Stanley's helicopter was equipped for ASW and had excellent radar, sonar and navigational gear. It carried doppler radar that permitted the pilot to fly safely even if he lost eyeball contact with his reference points on the ground. The two Wessex 5s whose pilots had some experience with covert insertions of troops were utility helicopters and lacked Stanley's sensitive navigational equipment. Stanley was to navigate for all three helicopters in the poor weather and white outs that are the bane of flying through snow.
At 0930 on 21 April Ian Stanley lifted off from Antrim to find a landing site. Taking Cape Constance on his port side he flew SE over Possession and Antarctic Bays and saw no military activity. After vetting Fortuna Glacier he returned to Antrim and loaded up his passengers from Mountain Troop. Accompanied by the two Wessex from Tidespring that carried the rest of the troop they made for Fortuna only to be turned back by a snow squall near Possession Bay(42). Bear in mind that it is not only distance that is critical in such insertions but the weather between helicopter and landing site. Five hundred yards behind a snow squall that prevents accurate navigation is as good as a hundred miles in preventing a safe landing. Stanley took Delves and Hamilton on a second recon, this time in deceptively decent weather and Delves ordered a second try. Day light was slipping by and it was best to land the troop and to get off the glacier onto firm ground by darkness. The second try at landing succeeded. By early afternoon sixteen men from Mountain Troop and three pulks (sleds) were safe on Fortuna Glacier. Just after the landing the weather worsened and the troop progressed barely a half mile before darkness forced a halt to the their tortuous slogging.
The night of 21/22 April 1982 saw the worst of South Georgia's weather. Off shore Antrim lashed down its gear as winds rose to one hundred miles per hour. A Force11 sea broke waves over the tired old ship and the barometer registered 965 millibars, lower than most seamen experience in a lifetime. Even worse the helicopters secured to Antrim's and Tidespring's decks shuddered almost to their break points. On the glacier Hamilton's men and their kit were safe but buried cold in the snow. Winds wrent tent poles and fabric alike. The horrendous weather continued and the men's physical condition began to deteriorate. Military operations even passive reconnaissance became impossible. At 1100 on 22 April 1982 Hamilton radioed Antrim: "Unable to move. Environmental casualties immanent."(43)
Snow squalls delayed Stanley's rescue attempt for forty-five minutes. Even then storms made him order the two Wessex 5s to wait on Cape Constance eight kilometers from the glacier while he found the SAS men and a landing site from which it was safe to rescue them. The weather foiled even Stanley's sophisticated navigational gear and his helicopter's air frame began to take on ice. Stanley scrubbed the mission and all three helicopters returned aboard Tidespring and Antrim.
Refueled, the three helos took off at 1330 for a second rescue attempt. This time breaks in the weather and orange smoke grenades brought rescuers and exhausted soldiers together. Tidd, the first pilot to land, quickly loaded his Wessex 5 with six SAS men and their kit and took off. A few minutes later he ran into the dreaded whiteout and without Stanley's helo to guide him crashed into the glacier. His unwanted landing site was cushioned in snow and while the helo was destroyed its occupants emerged by a fluke of fate shaken but alive. Ian Stanley in his Wessex 3 guided the second Wessex 5 to the crash site. The crash's survivors minus their heavy equipment crawled into the two helos and took off for the ships' warm bunks. The Wessex 5 flew close astern Stanley's mother hen but lost sight of it over the glacier's rim. By ill chance it flew into another whiteout and crashed. Stanley's helicopter already fully loaded had no choice but to head back to Antrim. As the thin Arctic sunlight disappeared two helicopters were lost, two of the SAS men had been rescued and two helo crewmen joined the fourteen SAS men stranded on the glacier. Sixteen valuable men found themselves unharmed but unable to perform any military mission and facing another night on the glacier in ever worsening weather. Any hope of completing the reconnaissance had ended. Young the amphibious force commander (until the land forces were firmly established ashore) knew no more about his target at the end of the day than he had at its beginnning. He did know that some troops under his command were in mortal straits, that he, a senior and experienced aviator, had lost two helicopters and that the goal of seizing South Georgia was in jeopardy. Sheridan the land force commander could do nothing unless and until the SAS problem got ressolved. Upon being told of the men marooned atop Fortuna Thatcher commented: "My heart was heavy.....How was I to conceal my feelings? I wondered if the task we had set for ourselves was truly impossible."(44) On Endurance Captain Nick Barker was more direct: "In military terms the whole operation had become a monumental cockup."(45)
Young and his operations crew aboard Antrim faced calamity. A two man emergency rescue team from the Royal Marines' Mountain and Arctic cadre was alerted on Tidespring where another problem surfaced. "I... had checked through their kit with them. In my view it wasn't very good. It was standard army issue - not as good as our stuff. There are recognized techniques for getting yourself out of a crevasse......it was my opinion those guys just didn't have that sort of gear, that they would not be able to haul themselves up the insides of a crevasse."(46)
By now a reconnaissance operation had degenerated into an odds against rescue operation. Stanley had few assets: a battered helicopter, the only Wessex left, and two hours of daylight to fly through awful weather in order to rescue sixteen men in terminal condition. Taking a new route to the glacier he found the survivors huddled inside inflated rafts used as tents and landed, the last hope for rescue that day. As the weather worsened he piled in all sixteen men --- the SAS men reluctantly left their kit and weapons except for sidearms --- and took off fifteen hundred pounds above the helicopter's maximum design weight. Stanley made his way back to Antrim, his sixth trip from Fortuna Glacier, and landed on Antrim's pitching deck in a controlled crash.
Military operations succeed or founder on judgments made about the enemy his size, equipment, numbers and location. Not so the Fortuna Glacier affair because no opposing forces were involved. Delves and Hamilton misjudged the data they possessed about Fortuna and overestimated their own capability. A clandestine insertion had become an air-ground mob scene, its central purpose compromised, its participants in jeopardy. This most unusual episode occurred despite the fact that Special Warfare operatives rank among the best intelligence gatherers and the most realistic analysts of tactical situations(47). No military objective had been reached during the preceeding twenty-four hours but Stanley had delivered Young and his force from disaster, saved sixteen lives and spared Margaret Thatcher another acute embarrassment. Stanley received a DSO for his extraordinary feat of technical flying and for his bravery. His passengers concluded that was little enough.
2 SBS came south on Endurance and it was their turn to reconnoiter Sheridan's possible landing sites from south of Leith and Grytviken ie from across Cumberland East Bay. Hound Bay, at the seaward neck of Barff Peninsula, was the insertion point for three SBS patrols. They were to make their way on foot half way up the peninsula, pick up two Gemini rafts dropped from helicopters and cross the bay to Brown Mountain. That low mountain was one of the two pieces of vital ground whose seizure was necessary for any attack on Grytviken. The mountain also provided a point from which Argentinean activity, if any, could be closely scrutinized. That two BAS men, Myles Plant and Tony North lived in the proposed patrol area and had seen no Argentine military activity did not deter the SBS leader from mounting his operation. He was of course safe from superiors' direct advice and criticism because Sheridan and Young were on Antrim many miles away. Ellerbeck flew his helicopter from Endurance to Cindy Buxton and Anne Price's hut on St Andrew's Bay to warn them of incipient military activity. They too had seen nothing of the Argentinean invaders.
Ellerbeck delivered only one patrol, four men and their kit, before bad weather prevented more flying. The ashore SBS patrol met the two BAS men, Plant and North, who reaffirmed that no Argentinean military lurked in the vicinity. The SBS patrols still on Endurance were not to be thwarted and went ashore by Gemini courtesy of Captain Nick Barker who brought his ship as close to shore as prudence allowed - under 1000 meters. The Geminis' motors then failed the three patrols as they tried to cross Moraine Fjord to get to their lookout point atop Brown Mountain(48). The night of 22/23 April 1982 the marines slept a frigid sleep behind rocks on Dartmouth Point. In the morning the patrol leaders reluctantly concluded that their unreliable outboard motors and ice-punctured Gemini hulls had ended their military mission. They decided on exfiltration.
A confluence of untoward events occurred here. The SBS patrols on Dartmouth Point could not reach by radio either Antrim or Endurance. They could not return to Endurance nor could they complete a military mission. Unproven reports of an Argentinean submarine's presence had prompted Young to withdraw Antrim beyond the SBS' radio's range; Endurance lacked the code books to decrypt SBS messages anyway. True they could go to ground for days if necessary but the fact was that the SBS men were stranded(49).
"South Georgia op seems bogged down for fear of Arg submarine (conventional, Sante Fe)."(50) Santa Fe's torpedoes were a potential risk for Young's force but they did not present a clear and present danger. Santa Fe's submerged speed approximated Tidespring's thirteen knots; its sustained surface speed just that. The tactical offense posed by two twenty-five knot destroyers and their embarked helicopters with active sonars in use against an ageing diesel submarine with generic electrical problems is lethal(51). Because of its low top speed and the noise it would emit at that speed it was extremely unlikely that Santa Fe could gain a position that allowed a high probability of a successful attack on any of the British ships. True Endurance's radio crew had intercepted messages from an overflying Argentinean aircraft giving that ship's position to an Argentinean submarine. That coordination made sense because Endurance's loud diesel engines could be easily picked up by the submarine's sonar and because Endurance had no sonar of its own to warn of impending attack. Worse Barker's ship could not turn handily to avoid an observed torpedo. Yet a quick read of the tactical situation showed that a submarine attack seemed very improbable; Santa Fe's job was to land troop reenforcements on South Georgia and not to brawl with British surface ships and ASW helicopters. A diesel submarine manned by an unblooded crew and burdened by a motley crowd of landsmen is most unlikely to prosecute an attack, risky in itself, that would draw the mortal attention of a British nuclear submarine captain trained to hunt down Soviet nuclear boats.
In fact one overriding reason should have prevented the undeserved deference that the Royal Navy paid to Santa Fe. Amphibious ships, purpose built or not, are meant to sail in harm's way in order to get the troops to the assault area. Men of war that carry amphibious forces cease being independent military assets and become ancillary to the troops' mission. Such ships become subordinate to the specific military task of occupying defended ground. Whatever Young's assessment of the risk to his own ship and crew putting Sheridan's marines ashore was his sole reason for being in South Georgia's waters. Then too excessive caution breeds its own potential for disaster. If any British ship had sunk fifty miles NE of South Georgia the crew and passengers would all have drowned. If disaster had occurred close aboard Grytviken or Leith some at least might have lived. Many seafarers still believe that a ship sunk going towards the fight causes no dishonor but that damage suffered away from the conflict raises questions about sound planning and tactics.
Finally on 23/24 April night Antrim picked up the SBS signal and after some discussion Endurance was ordered to rescue the isolated marines from Barff Peninsula. Barker's two small utility helicopters, piloted by Ellerbeck and Finding, removed the men minus their wretched Geminis and mal functioning motorsto Endurance' warmth; a second reconnaissance effort had misfired(52). The communications debacle that had marooned the SBS team ashore on Barff Peninsula was only a part of the muddle that permeated Young's operations. In separating Tidespring to refuel from Brambleleaf and in dividing his force up into two sub units: Plymouth and Endurance; and Antrim and Tidespring, Young lost defensive advantage against the putative diesel submarine, communications among the forces he was supposed to put ashore and Barker's and his pilots' valuable advice. Discreet military accomplishment would have justified this maritime hurly-burly, but by 24 April 1982 nothing of value had been gained, no ground recon completed and certainly no military objective gained. In fact only the prodigious flying feats of his helicopter pilots had saved Young's force from disaster. Sheridan remained a ship's guest rather than the commander of a landed infantry force.
D Squadron had one more reconnaissance card to play. Captain Timothy Burls' Boat Troop set out from Antrim at 0300 on 22 April 1998. They were to reconnoiter Leith, Husvik and Stromness from positions on Grass Island. A small but potentially bothersome garrison was thought to be guarding Leith Harbor and its disused whaling station. Because reconnaissance of Leith from Fortuna had failed an observation of Leith from Grass Island, a few thousand meters west in Stromness Bay seemed a good alternative especially as the presence of kelp precluded other feasable landing sites. Fifteen men deployed in five boats. Remember helicopters had come into short supply. Immediately after launching, three motors failed and the two working Gemini that remained took the three stalled boats in tow. When Endurance and Fort Austin had met at sea on 12 April Boat Troop had exercised its Gemini inflatables and their motors had also failed at that time. The continued failure of these motors in critical evolutions stymied the efforts of hundreds of millions of dollars of complex military equipment manned by thousands of trained operators. It remains a mystery why the SAS chose to go to war with a system of proven unreliability.
About 0400 wind and water combined in a ferocious storm that nearly swamped all the boats. Tow lines were broken, each crew struggled on its own. Three boats, including Captain Burls', made Grass Island and were buried. The nine men then established an OP from which they could see Leith and Stromness and Burls radioed his reports back to Antrim. At this point he had lost two of his five boats with no knowledge of whether they had drowned, put up on a distant shore, blown out to sea or been captured by the Argentineans. The control team on Antrim feared the worst. Because of a waterlogged motor and fierce winds one lost boat, Delta, was blown far off the route to Grass Island and just managed to paddle to safety near Larsen Pt. Inexplicably this Gemini lacked a radio beacon and could not transmit the crew's location. The other stray, Bravo boat, its motor inoperative and its crew exhausted, blew steadily eastward away from South Georgia out to sea. It, too, lacked a rescue beacon with enough range to contact Antrim but by luck contacted Burls on the troop's tactical network. He in turn radioed Antrim whose pilots and meteorological officers worked out Bravo's possible position. The ever resourceful Ian Stanley took off at 0800 in his Wessex 3 and at altitudes under two hundred feet conducted a classic box search. Just as his fuel supply left him no choice but to return to Antrim, Stanley's crewman Fitzgerald spotted the drifting raft, winched up its crew and returned them to the comforts of Antrim's wardroom. There Bravo boat's crew owned up to the fact that the troop had enjoyed no pre mission inspection of equipment and did not have an agreed upon rendezvous point (RV).
Yet much had been accomplished. Now one recon team of nine SAS men could observe, without discovery, Argentine activity in and around Stromness Bay. But this view from afar did not afford an accurate count of the Argentinean soldiery. At night on 23 April the Burls' nine men attempted to cross from Grass Island to the mainland, a few hundred meters. Again two of the three motors failed and the Geminis returned to Grass Island. A second try failed for the same reason and in the end the team crossed by paddling. That early morning Boat Troop or three teams of it completed the task towards which so much effort had been directed. Doing what it does best Burls' diminished troop reported back to Delves aboard Antrim the existance of a garrison of sixteen Argentinean marines and no supporting artillery. One sentry stood languid watch during the dark hours(53).
By the afternoon of 23 April 1982 Endurance's listeners and Spanish language translators had intercepted transmissions from an Argentinean C-130 to and from a submarine whose signal strength indicated it was a hundred miles from Endurance(54) and perhaps closer to Antrim. This information prompted Northwood and Young to send the two tankers, escorted by Plymouth, 200 miles NE out of harm's way. Antrim followed shortly. This decision left Endurance unprotected and the main assault force aboard Tidespring heading away from South Georgia(55). True HMS Conqueror was headed south to intercept the Santa Fe but the meeting would take many hours. Simultaneously Northwood detached and sent to South Georgia HMS Brilliant with its 1st class sonar and two ASW helicopters. Further intercepts by Captain Barker's crew disclosed that the Argentine submarine was to attack Endurance and deliver reenforcements to the Garrison at Leith.
Here both sides erred. At 0300 on 24 April 1982 Young ordered his force to clear South Georgia's waters and to rendezvous two hundred miles NE(56). This odd direction scattered Young's force and lost its ability to bring the fight to the Argentinean submarine. Antrim, Brilliant, Plymouth and Conqueror acting in concert could have destroyed or sent away the Santa Fe in very short order. The Argentine navy's move was equally strange. Knowing that sooner or later the Royal Navy would have at least one nuclear sub in the area the Argentinean navy imprudently sent only one antiquated submarine without air cover to target a non-combatant when it should have sought to destroy a ship, either Antrim or Plymouth, that could destroy it. Santa Fe's small size, its slow underwater speed and the onset of nasty winter weather mandated only one mission at a time, transport troops or find and kill Endurance, not both. There is little doubt that HMS Conqueror working alone could have made short work of a WW2 diesel submarine(57).
On the British side Young had lost the capacity, at least for the moment, to deliver Sheridan's force to the beach --- his sole reason for being around South Georgia. At 1600 on 24 April 1982 Captain Barker communicated to Vice-Admiral David Halifax at Northwood his concern about being the Santa Fe's target and was told: "There's really very little to worry about."(58) Northwood, now aware of the Santa Fe's approximate position and certain that the tankers carrying the force's fuel and assault force lay out of harm's way, ordered Plymouth to return from its protective duties. Barker's concern for his ship's safety was justified but by this time the six helicopters on Brilliant, Antrim, Plymouth and Endurance, however underequipped to prosecute an attack on a clever sub skipper, were positioned to search for Santa Fe as it brought its troop reenforcements to Cumberland Bay. Their home ships were still too distant from Grytviken to form the ASW screen that would bar Santa Fe from landing its troops.
At dawn on the 25th the helicopters began their search. Once again Ian Stanley from Antrim found the target, dropped two old fashioned depth charges and damaged the Santa Fe enough to make her an easy surface target for machine gun, missile and ASW torpedo attacks by any British ship or helicopter in the neighborhood. Santa Fe did not dive; Stanley's depth charge attacks were so accurate that the sub's ballast tanks were terminally damaged and she became easy prey for ensuing attacks by Young's helicopters. Captain Bicain limped back into Grytviken harbor, tied up his boat alongside the BAS jetty at King Edward Point and watched as its flooded stern sank below the surface. This drama fit the bizarre side of the Falklands war. Submarines are accurately typed; in war zones they navigate under water where layers of differing salinity and temperature protect them from direct observation and hostile sonar. That Bicain did not take advantage of the hundred or so fathoms of cold water under his keel in order to elude British attackers meant that he could not dive because his boat had ovewhelming mechanical failure(59). Nor did his limited speed allow him to break off the action. Bicain could not fight, hide or run; he was a sitting duck. He could honorably have struck.
The helicopters' attacks proved equally odd. Bicain's boat was initially and as it turned out terminally damaged by depth charges so named because they function best at depths of water where an explosion close to a hull causes water pressure to burst the hull. The trick is to get this very low tech weapon to explode near the sub's hull. Used against a surfaced craft much of a depth charge's force vanishes ineffectually into the air. Ian Stanley's splendid airmanship and good fortune continued. Battered into unseaworthiness Santa Fe turned back to port and on the way got hit by helicopters' AS -12 missiles whose fuzes did not detonate their missiles' warheads because the sub's plastic sail did not offer sufficient resistance. ASW torpedoes fired at Santa Fe's screws were ineffective because these do not detonate unless the target is more than thirty feet underwater and Santa Fe was surfaced. The British attacks had laudable intent --- the idea behind war is to destroy the enemy --- but the better part lay in getting Bicain to surrender his boat and crew intact once he began his limp back to shore. Code books, live prisoners and captured weaponry are far more valuable than bodies and metal on the sea bottom.
Prior to this dramatic diversion Northwood had repeatedly taxed Sheridan, the land force commander, for his lack of progress in recapturing South Georgia. The reasons for Sheridan's restraint were clear. Delves and Hamilton, not Sheridan, made the decisions, calamatous as they turned out, about SAS' insertions, a condition precedent to the main landing. While wishing a speedy end to South Georgia's recapture Northwood had ordered the bulk of Sheridan's landing force away from the landing sites to protect it from the Santa Fe, reconnaissance had not been completed and two of his helicopters had been lost on on imprudent mission that he had opposed. In this instance the Royal Navy had showed greater concern for a wimpy submarine threat that did not exist anyway than for its task of getting a coherent body of troops ashore. Indeed up to 25 April Sheridan had not had Antrim and Plymouth together for gun fire support on Argentinean positions. By 1100 on 25 April 1982 everything had changed. Plymouth with its twin 4.5" guns stood offshore nearby Antrim. Sheridan sensed that the defeat of the Santa Fe, now a leaking hulk at Grytviken, would have demoralized the original garrison and that the reenforcements just debarked from Santa Fe would be in no condition to fight.
Sheridan knew that disabling the Santa Fe was only an intermediate step and not the victory he had been sent to obtain. The jackpot was ownership of Grytviken. He waited upon Young, the amphibious force commander, outside his cabin door to ask that the ships be positioned so that helicopters could lift a scratch force of seventy five men to attack and seize Grytviken. Tidespring carrying his main assault force was more than fifty miles away and the remnants of Boat Troop remained esconced on Grass Island. Sheridan judged that his command element, the mortar teams, Delves' few SAS men, the marines from Endurance and SAS men from Plymouth could break the Argentinean defenses if landed quickly with naval gunfire support. It was a bold judgment made without computers or any other form of high technology; rather it was the gut feeling of a long time infantryman, comfortable in his own skin, who knew what heartens or demoralizes green troops holding positions against whom or what they could not know. Delay in landing British troops could mean hardened Argentinean defenses. Sheridan had to wait for three hours for Young's approval - he remained overall commander until the troops landed - while Young and his aviators replayed the attacks on Santa Fe, ascertained who engaged first, (it was Stanley) and who might get the decorations if any. The helos had returned victorious from their attacks by1030 but it was not until 1330 that Young agreed to put ashore the landing force. Without the formality of an O Group, Sheridan gave hasty orders to his officers at 1345.?
Sheridan's plan was simple and quick of execution. His landing force, seventy-five men, was less than half its intended size. Because he had only five helicopters --- two were destroyed on Fortuna Glacier but two small Lynx had arrived on HMS Brilliant --- he could land only twenty men at a time. Landings are best made at dawn to use a full day's light; circumstances gave Sheridan at most five hours from takeoff to win the battle. He had, however, regained one precious asset, the four naval guns on Antrim and Plymouth.The marine's plan encompassed two pieces of vital high ground: Brown Mountain is eleven hundred feet high, it lies south from Grytviken and a few hundred yards across King Edward Cove; and Bore Valley Pass that lay west and behind Grytviken. Seizure of these two dominating points virtually guaranteed Grytviken's submission. Sheridan ordered Delves' SAS group to secure the landing site, Hestesletten a morain at the base of Brown Mountain. As soon as the second wave had landed and established its position Delves was ordered to "advance to contact" that is engage hostile forces and seize the top of Brown Mountain. Sheridan and his command element would land after the second group had secured the landing site from which Delves should already have pushed off. At this point helicopters would lift the remaining troops from Plymouth and Endurance to Bore Valley Pass in order to give supporting fire to the main body as it advanced from Brown Mountain into Grytviken.
Sheridan's fire plan, worked out with LtCol Eve RA, was critical to his mission's success. The four guns on Antrim and Plymouth were his only artillery. Ten minutes before the first element landed, at1335, British 4.5'' shells rained in great profusion on Hestesletten, the landing site, a flat patch of rocky earth at the foot of Brown Mountain. Hestesletten though small was the only flat surface close to Brown Mountain that was suitable for helo landings and troops' assembly. It had to be made safe. Fifteen minutes later the fire switched to the top of Brown Mountain as the SAS men emerged from the helos to secure the landing site. No enemy fire greeted Delves' men then or later that day. The naval gunfire killed no one and destroyed no positions but it was a precisely timed demonstration of accurate shooting well seen and heard by the Argentinean garrison(60). Sheridan ordered in his second group, Royal Marines, and then arrived himself at1535 with his command element and medics. Already short of daylight Sheridan was livid with rage at Delves who had not obeyed orders to advance to contact enemy forces in the direction of Brown Mountain and to seize its summit. Delves replied that an Argentine position lay at the mountain's top. Sheridan ordered Delves again to advance and Delves moved forward over stony ground onto and up Brown Mountain. As a preliminary to their attack, the SAS men fired Milan missiles at a suspected enemy position only to discover that they had killed two seals who were disporting themselves on the banks of the Penguin River. No Argentinean troops awaited Delves and his men on Brown Mountain.
Sheridan's advance met no opposition nor was a hostile shot fired at the advancing British troops. While the British scurried to the top of Brown Mountain naval gunfire shifted to its third phase. Sheridan had been ordered to avoid whereever possible damage to BAS buildings and to persons. Accordingly his fire plan's third phase directed ships' gunfire to land over and behind the BAS buildings and the Argentinean defensive positions. The defending Argentinian troops then realized that only a slight adjustment meant heavy fire onto them. Before South Georgia the Argentine marines had never been under fire let alone that of accurately registered naval guns. At 1705, ninety minutes after his arrival, Sheridan saw two white flags fluttering from the main buildings in Grytviken. He called off the landing in Bore Valley Pass and began the three kilometer march in Grytviken. Delves' SAS men leaped forward and he declined to answer Sheridan's call to halt. Sheridan called Antrim for a helicopter that took him into Grytviken to accept the surrender from the Argentinean commanding officer, LtCdr Luis Lagos. Sheridan took the surrender himself ashore as light failed.
On 26 April 1982 a bare three weeks after Port Stanley fell, the commander of Argentine forces on South Georgia Lt Cdr Lagos had signed the formal instrument of surrender in the BAS base at King Edward Point. Dispite the delays, the navy's unfamiliarity with amphibious operations, the failed reconnaissance, the threat real or imagined of submarine attack, the ramshackle command structure, the dispersion of his assault force, the SAS' faulty motors on their gemini boats and the near disaster of Fortuna Glacier Sheridan put the best face on the nasty business of war. He had completed his military mission with no casualties to his own men or to the enemy either(61).
Just after Lagos' surrender of all Argentine forces (130+ Men) on South Georgia, Lcdr. Astiz who commanded the fifteen Argentinean marines at Leith was told to lay down arms prior to the arrival of a British force on the morning of the 26th or to accept the consequences. The surrender of the main Argentinean garrision, the sound and fury of the naval guns and the certain presence of British troops quickly extinguished his prolix bravado and he yielded. The picture shown in the world's press of Astiz signing an instrument of surrender aboard Plymouth in Leith gave a false impression that Astiz was surrendering Argentinean forces on South Georgia. In fact the garrison's surrender under law took place on the previous day ashore in BAS quarters. Astiz signed only for the fifteen Argentinean marines in Leith; his act duplicated unecessarily Lagos' capitulation to Sheridan of all Argentinean forces on South Georgia the day before(62). Even in defeat Astiz sought and was granted the limelight.
Sheridan the land force commander was stunned to receive from Northwood a message asking his list of those to be decorated for the victory. Thatcher held a jubilant al fresco press conference outside No 10 Downing Street: "Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines ... Rejoice"(63). South Georgia was not a victory for which combat decorations might have issued because there was no ground combat. Sheridan's landing force had received no incoming fire and suffered no casualties(64). In fact the operation was a string of blunders rescued from utter disaster mainly by the moral and physical courage of Major J. M. G. Sheridan RM and Lcdr. Ian Stanley RN. True many others had been cold, wet, tired and in danger of losing their lives to the weather but none had shown valor in the face of enemy fire because there had been no military opposition. That would come later.
Operation Paraquat was a slip shod affair conducted by a high command that did not pair adequate human or material resources to the task. It diverted resources from the main goal, seizure of Port Stanley. The excuse could be made that a first try at amphibious warfare was bound to be difficult but that does not vindicate dispersing the assault force before a World War 2 diesel submarine away from its target beach nor does it justify the poor decision making that went into the Fortuna Glacier incident or the Grass Island reconnaissance. The SAS failed in South Georgia because they used equipment known to be faulty, because they did not credit mountain men with more experience than they and because fate and nature do not care how clever or strong humans claim themselves to be.
Sheridan's capture of Grytviken and Leith showed the many sides to this small war. A small and bloodless military affair metamorphosed into a major political victory. If ever the Royal Marines had proven their worth to the politicians this was the occasion. Thatcher was not yet the Warrior Queen, that would take blood, time and Port Stanley's seizure, but she had restored British sovereignty to a tiny bit of hijacked property. She could, moreover, hold a cabinet together long enough to gain a much needed victory because a few Royal Marines took the initiative and won a dicey military engagement 8000 miles from home. For the first time since Suez a British Prime Minister undertook diplomatic/military responsabilities outside NATO, risked blood, treasure and her job and prevailed dispite a clumsy military command and control system about which she knew very little. British professional military, especially pilots and infantry, finished the job, heroically so in some instances, despite their seniors' lapses. The Argentine military, on the other hand, had no rationized plan for the defense of their new holdings. The Argentine Navy demonstrated strategic and tactical incompetence in the loss of Santa Fe. It would not come out again to fight in the face of submarine and surface opposition.
Systemic flaws surfaced, too. The reconnaisance practices of the Special Warfare units needed refinement and equipment up to their tasks. The SAS was willing to overman an operation, compromise the operation's command and control system, overburden ships and logistics and risk incomprehensably in order to gain a place in the sun. Too many of those involved refused to accept perfectly good intelligence because it did not oringinate from within. The Royal Navy did not have a grip on the essence and purpose of amphibious operations, getting troops ashore. Yet these shortcomings did not overwhelm. Down deep in the Corps of the Royal Marines, far from desks and parade grounds, rather junior officers and enlisted men possessed a competence and an obduracy that would overcome enormous obstacles even those posed by their own side.
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