The Falklands – Lessons Learned

First published: 16th August 2014 | Prof. Eric Grove


This text was first given as ‘The Falklands’ – presented as a speech in Canberra on October 2nd 2013, at the 2013 Australian Chief of Army History Conference. It is released here with the kind permission of the author.


The Falklands War of 1982 came as a surprise to the United Kingdom Government in every respect. Not only was the attack unexpected in tactical terms, but also in strategic. The UK was fully committed at the time to a defence posture orientated to land and air operations on the Central Front in Europe. Maritime operations were conceived largely for securing sea control in the Eastern Atlantic. There was little place for amphibious warfare in this universe. It had clung on by the skin of its teeth after the withdrawal from East of Suez in 1971, with a new emphasis on servicing NATO’s strategy of ‘Flexible Response’ on the watery flanks of NATO. But the Mediterranean Southern Flank was abandoned in the Defence Review of 1975 and, with the growth of Soviet sea denial capabilities in the north, it seemed that ground forces – even the Royal Marines who had specialised in arctic and mountain warfare – would be flown in by air in a ‘pre-inforcement’ operation, rather than arriving by sea in the British contribution to amphibious component of the NATO striking fleet.

The arrival of the Conservative Government in 1979 promised a new emphasis ‘out of area’ operations and a move to a more global and maritime strategy, but the association of these ideas with Defence Secretary Francis Pym’s mismanagement of the Ministry ,killed the more global approach[1] . When John Nott was brought in to exert Thatcherite financial discipline on the MoD, the political and strategic logic of current policy seemed overwhelming. The Royal Navy failed to convince the new Secretary of State that it had a clear grasp of developing NATO maritime strategy.[2] The amphibious capability was again under attack. The likelihood of an ‘opposed landing is not likely enough to retain Intrepid and Fearless’[3], the two amphibious transport docks ( LPDs). Nevertheless, it was decided that the three existing Royal Marine Commandos ought to be retained as the government regarded ‘their special experience and versatility as of high value for tasks both in and beyond the NATO area.’ [4]. The two LPDs were, however, due for disposal in 1982 and 1984, while for a time the six Landing Ships Logistic (LSLs) were threatened. Their importance for the Continental commitment seems to have saved them.

The paper did reflect some new emphasis on operations outside the NATO area, (which saved two out of the three Invincible class carriers) but the emphasis in out of area land operations was on air mobility. The types of operation for which preparations were being made, were also relatively low level. 5 Brigade, the formation tasked with this role had decidedly limited capabilities. As a critical, but highly perceptive Royal Marine officer observed:

‘… 5 Infantry Brigade was the British Army’s lip service to the “rest of the world” and “out of area”. They were supposed to be prepared for intervention operations around the world, but they were structured, trained and equipped for nothing more violent than the lowest levels of insurgency. This was a result of the Army’s narrow focus on Germany. They had surrendered any serious capability of projecting expeditionary military power beyond Central Europe. In spite of Britain’s many residual commitments outside that area, forces earmarked for “out of area” or “rest of the world” operations came not only after Germany, but after Northern Ireland in the priority order. This may be understandable, but little thought had been given, and even less resources had been devoted, to the notion that such a force might have to fight anything more lethal than unruly tribesmen.'[5]

At the end of 1981 The First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Leach, who had risked his career to defend the Navy as a whole (if not the amphibious forces or the Falklands guardship Endurance) came to Plymouth. He told the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, the exceptionally bright and intelligent Brigadier Julian Thompson, that ‘there would never be any more amphibious operations carried out by the British.'[6] At that time ,when (contrary to the story of complete lack of preparation for a Falklands Campaign) there was study in the Ministry of Defence in which the Royal Marines argued that the Navy still had just about sufficient capability to deploy a brigade worldwide without host nation support. The internal reaction from the Naval Staff was not very encouraging: ‘As the wretched Director of Naval Operations (and of course Trade) who would have to put flesh on the skeleton, I can’t visualise such an operation. Please let the first victorious Battle of the Falkland Islands remain the only one- otherwise Ministers will be led to believe we can repulse Argentina et .al.'[7]

The tide had begun to turn, if only a little, before the Falklands War broke out. The decision to go for Trident D-5 to retain commonality with the Americans in strategic nuclear capabilities, allowed money to be put back into the short term programme. The American also wanted the UK to retain an amphibious contribution to their Atlantic striking fleet. There was also a revealing demonstration of an LPDs capabilities to a heretofore unbriefed Secretary of State who was suitably impressed. The result was a reprieve, perhaps only temporary, for the LPDs.

As the crisis with Argentina deepened, air reinforcement options had only to be considered to be dismissed as impractical. When invasion loomed, only Sir Henry Leach could offer Prime Minister Thatcher a way out of the political melt down facing her: he offered a maritime task force with which to threaten a counter-invasion. The obvious land component of such a force was Thompson’s 3 Commando Brigade held at seven days’ notice. Its commander later found it something of a ‘mystery’, that his formation was not alerted as soon as precautionary measures started to be taken on 29 March As he put it ‘My brigade, the force which would have to land and re-take the islands, and without whom the sailing of a task force, except as a gesture, would be pointless, remained blissfully ignorant that our services might be required.'[8]

Only early on the day of the invasion April 2, did Major General Jeremy Moore, Major General Commanding Commando Forces Royal Marines, ring Thompson to bring the brigade to 72 hours notice. As the dispersed personnel of the Brigade were brought back together, the Commando Logistics Regiment organised the movement of its war maintenance reserve, thirty days of combat supplies plus sixty days stocks of general and maintenance stores. Almost 40,000 tons were moved by road, with 100 flatbed trucks being hired to boost transport assets; 44 trains were also chartered by the end of the second week. Territorial Army drivers were mobilised to support the Royal Corps of Transport in this major movement of supplies.[9]

More infantry was also added to Thompson’s formation. The first addition was the Third Battalion the Parachute Regiment, part of 5 Brigade and the Army’s ‘spearhead’ unit at 24 hours notice. It was later decided to add a fifth unit, the 2nd battalion of the Parachute Regiment also from 5 Brigade. As the brigade commander recalled: ‘This was good news indeed. The addition of 2 Para to 3 Commando Brigade merely increased the feeling that existed already among all ranks in the Brigade that the team getting ready to go south was the First XI. We were, we felt, second-to-none and although outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by the enemy, we could “hack it”.’ [10]

The requirement to transport these troops plus support units including Rapier anti-aircraft missiles and a squadron of Scorpion and Scimitar light reconnaissance tanks, placed a major strain on available amphibious transport assets. It was soon decided to requisition the liner Canberra and the ferry Elk, the first of many ships taken up from trade (under the unfortunately abbreviated ‘STUFT’ arrangement). Fearless was in service to act as amphibious flagship but its sister LPD Intrepid had to be mobilised from reserve. Five LSLs were available (the sixth was in Belize and sent directly to Ascension) and the auxiliary Stromness, in process of being laid up, was mobilised as an impromptu assault transport with part of 45 Commando embarked (the rest flew down to Ascension to join the ships there). 3 Para when allocated were sent aboard the RoRo Hull ferry Norland with its heavy equipment loaded in Europic Ferry. Another notable requisitioned merchantman was the large container ship Atlantic Conveyor, which was converted into an aircraft transport for both STOVL jets and helicopters.

The ships were loaded as rapidly as possible and Commodore Mike Clapp, Commodore Amphibious Warfare (COMAW) and as the amphibious task group commander signalled London that ‘the speed of mounting, type of STUFT allocated and lack of clear amphibious objective has meant we have basically managed to squeeze what we considered essential into the given space.'[11] A ‘shuffle’ would therefore be required at Ascension Island to produce a better tactical loading of the ships. It was later assessed that it would have been more efficient to have taken more care in loading the ships, even at the cost of delaying their departure. Political considerations, however dictated a different approach. The Argentines had to be made to realise, as soon as possible, that an amphibious operation was in the offing.

The Command structure adopted for Operation Corporate, as the Falklands operation was designated, was to set up a combined Task Force Headquarters at Fleet HQ at Northwood with CINCFLEET, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse in command. The HQ was combined as in addition to the surface and amphibious forces that made up Task Force 317, there was a separate Task Force 324 made up of a single group of nuclear powered submarines that would act a cover for the other force. The first arrangement was to make Rear Admiral John ‘Sandy’ Woodward both commander of the carrier battle group Task Group 317.8 the overall operational commander. As Flag Officer First Flotilla, he had been conducting ‘Springtrain’ exercises around Gibraltar and was the flag officer least far away. His most suitable destroyers and frigates were reinforced by the carrier Hermes and the new Invincible both configured to carry Sea Harriers fighter bombers and Sea King helicopters. As the rapidly and very publicly sailed carriers came south, Woodward joined Hermes as his new flagship on 15 April.

By then, the command structure had changed (on the 9th) to reflect, if only partially current amphibious doctrine. Whereas initially subordinate to Woodward, the amphibious group Task Group 317.0 under Commodore Clapp, was now directly subordinate to TF 317 as was the landing group under Thompson, TG 317.1. They were now equal in status although Woodward was still treated as ‘Senior Task Group Officer’ being a two star as against the two one star TG commanders. On 17 April, Woodward became officially ‘Primus Inter Pares’. This was a recipe for confusion and misunderstanding. As Thompson later explained:

‘It was an uncomfortable compromise, leaving much to personalities, requiring a degree of tolerance and understanding all round; two characteristics which are often in short supply under stress. Sandy was put in a difficult position by this imprecise command organisation, but to his credit refused to try to take charge of me, despite being ordered on one occasion to do so.’ [12]

What should have occurred, was to appoint the Flag Officer Third Flotilla, the Naval organisation concerned with carriers and amphibious ships with a proper staff to organise such operations at a higher level, as an on the spot commander. Rear Admiral Sir Derek Reffell, the existing FOF 3 was the obvious choice. He had played a role in early planning (before being shut out) and could have been given appropriate rank. Thompson sums up what this might have produced:

‘A three-star operational level commander, riding initially perhaps with General Jeremy Moore [appointed Fieldhouse’s Land Deputy – EG], in a ship with the right communication fit, such as Glamorgan or Antrim, built with accommodation for a Flag Officer and staff, would have been invaluable. Positioned forward in the operational area, he could have drawn together the strands of the carrier, amphibious and landing force battles. He could have decided on priorities, seen for himself what was happening and removed the sources of friction. Perhaps most useful of all, he could have taken the responsibility for speaking directly to Northwood off the backs of the busy group commanders.'[13]

The weaknesses of the command structure were shown up at the first meeting of the Task Group commanders on board Fearless on 16 April. Northwood had not helped by discussing with Woodward the possibility of establishing an airfield on West Falkland. The two other Group commanders were understandably horrified at this totally unrealistic notion which had not been vouchsafed to them. Commodore Clapp described the scene thus:

‘We were not, however, prepared for what was to take place. Although he was the senior, we had not expected Sandy to want to take the lead at this meeting in such, at least to us, a tactless way. We believed that we [i.e. he and Thompson - EG] were the best people to discuss amphibious problems and expected him to want to hear our views. Instead he gave us a number of instructions which we considered to be complete red herrings. Unfortunately, since he was the senior we would be obliged to waste our staff’s time… All this was seen on board Fearless as an unnecessary attempt to dominate and it acutely embarrassed the naval members of my staff, while infuriating the Royal Marines and, more particularly the Army members who were new to the Royal Navy and its quirks. Trust was broken and it would take a long time to repair.’ [14]

Later Commodore Clapp added to this assessment that seems to have come as something of a surprise to the Admiral.[15] It is worth quoting in extenso as an important ‘lesson learnt':

‘What we have recounted here is not intended as a snide attack on a competent officer with much on his mind. It is an important lesson that must be learnt and avoided. It should be read as a most unfortunate example of what can happen, all too easily, when busy and worried people with very differing backgrounds and personalities, not all from the same service or of the same rank, meet for the first time, in a hurry, but with no agreed agenda. In consequence, not being fully prepared and in already stressful conditions, neither party is likely to foresee the needs of the others. The event, even if based on misunderstandings, nevertheless had an adverse effect that was to mar proceedings for a long time.

Neither Julian nor I had ever worked with Sandy before (indeed, Julian and I were only now just getting to know each other reasonably well). We were far from sure whether he expected to be put back in overall charge of us, or what he knew that we did not.'[16]

The following day, 17 May, Fieldhouse arrived to meet his Task Group commanders at a meeting on board Hermes. This in Thompson’s words, ‘the air was considerably cleared’.[17] It was made clear that the three Task Groups would be allowed to do their own planning. It was made clear that the staff in Fearless ‘would have the final say in landing plans’.[18] A timetable was set, with the carrier battle group to leave the next day, to prepare the way for the amphibious forces that would sail from Ascension on 29 April with a proposed landing date on 16 May. The carrier battle group and the submarines would enforce the Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) and take on the Argentine naval and air forces. This would obtain the conditions for an amphibious operation and the landing of Special Forces for vital reconnaissance. During the stay at Ascension there would be reloading, training and testing of hitherto unknown procedures such as using light tanks and LCUs as modern versions of the World War Two LCG and loading men from Canberra into landing craft. A proper rehearsal, as demanded by doctrine, was impossible, because of lack of training areas, beaches and helicopter landing zones as well as a shortage of helicopters for both the supply transfer and operational rehearsal.

Political pressure to sail the amphibious force early to improve the British diplomatic bargaining position, caused ‘dismay’ at Ascension, ‘leading to an uncompromising warning from Commodore Clapp, replete with references to Gallipoli, of the severe and possibly catastrophic operational penalties that could ensue.'[19] In order to keep the earlier movement option open, the Rapier missiles were not fired but kept aboard their LSL where they deteriorated, with significant negative results later. Clapp was also frustrated that the eventually successful recapture of South Georgia had lost valuable helicopter assets due to the over ambition of the SAS on Fortuna Glacier.

On 26 May an Outline Plan for Operation Sutton, the code name chosen for a landing, was received from Northwood. ‘A strong and sustainable presence’ was to be established ashore by landing the reinforced brigade on or about 16 May. ‘The force will establish a bridgehead (sic) close enough to exert direct military pressure against the main Argentine force in the Port Stanley Area. This may be enough to convince the Argentines that their own position is militarily untenable and that they can honourably agree to withdraw, but the possibility that the enemy may advance for a decisive battle must be allowed for in selecting the position for the bridgehead [20]

Ambiguity was restored in the command structure as Woodward was referred to in this plan as ‘Commander Combined Task Force’. Operational control of what was again disturbingly called the Amphibious Task Unit ‘may be delegated to COMAW as Commander Amphibious Task Force (CATF)’ and Thompson was nominated as Commander of the Landing Force (CLF). ‘Subject to the overall authority of COMAW, responsibility for the conduct of operations ashore is vested Cmnd 3 Commando Brigade. When the Landing Force is established ashore the Tactical Control of the Landing Force will be delegated to Cmnd 3 Commando Brigade RM as Commander Landing Force.’ [21] The acceptance of established doctrine was thus tempered by the implication of a reversion to Woodward’s formal command at some point.

There was doubt, both in London and in the Task Groups, that the reinforced Commando Brigade might not be enough to deal with the superior numbers of Argentine forces. The clear candidate for such reinforcement was 5 Brigade, which had already lost two of its the units to the Commando Brigade. The last battalion in the brigade was the 1/7thDuke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles and a controversy broke out between Nott (a former Gurkha officer,) and General Sir Edwin Bramall, the Chief of the General Staff about their usability. Bramall used his position as Colonel in Chief of Nott’s old regiment to insist on the battalion’s deployment. The Gurkhas would be accompanied by two Guards battalions, the Second Battalion Scots Guards and the First Battalion Welsh Guards, fresh from what was perhaps their major role – ceremonial duties in London. Supporting units were allocated while the brigade was trained for possible deployment. The brigade was sent on ‘Exercise Welsh Falcon’ to acquire cohesion and obtain a little experience in mountainous conditions. The problem for the hapless Brigade Command, led by Brigadier Tony Wilson, was that he was unable to exercise the higher staff work of his formation, rather than just engage in basic field training. It was hardly optimal preparation for a challenging campaign to try to put together three unfamiliar units. As the Brigade’s sympathetic historians have put it:

‘No other brigade in modern history could have been more badly prepared and the blame should not be levelled at Brigadier Wilson. Some very strange decisions were made at the Ministry of Defence anyway.’ [22] On 27 April, the Task Force Commander, Fieldhouse asked for the extra brigade. Bramall was very doubtful about the commitment. Indeed he ‘doubted whether the situation merited a military operation on the scale envisaged’ [23] Both the Army and Air Force chiefs were quite clearly out of their depth. It took two meetings of the Chiefs of Staff for them to agree, under some political pressure, that Fieldhouse’s requests for further reinforcement should be met. On 2 May the ‘War Cabinet’, Committee OD/SA (Oversea Policy and Defence Committee/South Atlantic) approved the deployment. A serious problem was that, even using the liner Queen Elizabeth II, there was only space for 3,000 men from the 4,000 total strength of the Brigade. The container ship Atlantic Causeway, originally intended as an aircraft transport, had to be used for most of the logistical support. They sailed from UK on 12 May and the evening of the 13/14th.[24]

At the end of the preceding month on 30 April, Woodward’s battle group had reached the edge of the Total Exclusion Zone declared around the Falkland Islands. The slow LSLs were also sent south from Ascension on 1 May with the escort of the ill-fated frigate Antelope. This took something of the pressure off Clapp as it could be presented politically that ‘an “invasion force” could be seen to have sailed for operations in the South Atlantic.'[25] On 2 May, the British scored a signal and decisive victory by sinking the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. The Argentine Navy, including their aircraft carrier, withdrew to territorial waters and took no further part in operations. One major threat had been neutralised but Argentina’s land based air power still remained, as the threat of its submarines.

On 7 May, Norland and Europic Ferry finally arrived at Ascension with 2 Para and their support. There was only time for one rehearsal with landing craft for the paratroopers. The previous day Canberra and Elkhad sailed with the tanker RFA Tidepool and the frigates Argonaut and Ardent. On the evening of the 7th, most of the amphibious force sailed from Ascension, closely followed by Intrepid that left the following day to join up. The LSL Sir Bedevere was also on its way crammed with supplies and due to arrive at the Total Exclusion Zone on 23 May.

During this period the staffs of Task Groups 317.0 ans TG 317.1 had been working on the landing site, the Amphibious Operational Area (AOA) . Fieldhouse had left it to his subordinates and they had decided on San Carlos Water on the north western corner of East Falkland. This was finally decided in Fearless on 10 May. [26] Two days later Fieldhouse issued the order to repossess the islands as soon as possible and San Carlos had been approved as the AOA, an area that was virtually undefended. On 18 May the amphibious ship rendezvoused, some 32 ships and the Cabinet decided that the landing should take place, even if air superiority had not been obtained. This was a considerable risk, but in the circumstances politically necessary, however much the local commanders were uncomfortable with the situation. Amphibious landings were not supposed to occur in conditions of contested air power.

The same day Thompson issued his operations order, holding an ‘O’ Group with his commanders the next day. As the historically minded officer later put it , ‘The forthcoming amphibious assault would be the first carried out by the British since Suez in 1956 and one would have to go back to the Second World War to find an example of a landing on this scale being conducted by the British alone. Without allies.’ [27] He laid out the plans for a silent landing in two waves in the still very lightly defended San Carlos area. Five beaches would be used around Port San Carlos, San Carlos Settlement and Ajax Bay. The high ground around was to be secured by first light and then artillery and Rapier missiles flown in by helicopter. As more intelligence came in, the plan was amended in detail and an attack with naval gunfire and SBS on the Argentine company found to be at Fanning Head added.

Timing was dictated by the air situation. The final approach was to be made at night but even this meant at least half the approach through the Total Exclusion Zone would have to be made in daylight. On 17 May the main amphibious group joined the LSLs. A major cross decking operation was planned for the 19th with the carrier group. Special Forces and the absolutely vital Naval Gunfire Observation parties not already in place would join the amphibious group and support units would be married up with their infantry. This was intended to be a relatively short affair, but then a jittery Northwood, expecting the loss of at least one major ship, stepped in to demand that troops be spread more between ships. 40 Commando and 3 Para were transferred to the LPDs by landing craft, the weather being fortuitously calm for those southern latitudes. The only losses were two SAS troops whose helicopter crashed.

The ships ran towards the islands on 20 May under ‘gloriously foul’ weather and in complete radio silence. [28] The weather only cleared at dusk. Fearless put 40 Commando in its landing craft while Intrepid’s went across to Norland to land 2 Para who were the first troops ashore. The first wave began to go ashore at 0430 local time, two hours late, followed by 45 Commando and 3 Para. .40 commando was kept in Canberra as a reserve.

As Thompson later recalled the main difficulty on D-Day was tactical communications, a chronic problem that had deep seated sources:

‘One of the frustrations of that first day was the poor state of landing force communications, the inability to speak on the radio with the units already ashore, or to my light helicopters in the air. The cause was familiar from my previous experience with the LPDs. The landing force nets shared the same antennae on the Fearless as the naval assets. The naval radios, being more powerful, almost completely blotted out the incoming signal from the units ashore who were working with low power man-pack radios, and the same occurred with the relatively low powered sets in my light helicopters. The problem would be sorted out as the day wore on and the unit rear link radios in the BVs [tracked command vehicles – EG] were landed. Retuning the radios in Fearless would also help. No tuning had been possible before H-Hour because we were on radio silence. In short, the communications took time to settle down and become reliable. These imperfections were well known, but lack of money had prevented any improvements in the communications of the LPDs.’ [29] One might add, lack of priority and the perception in high places that amphibious warfare was obsolete in the NATO context.

The amphibious ships sailed into San Carlos water which Clapp, an experienced strike aviator, realised would give some protection from fast jet bombing. This began in the morning and after a lull on D plus 1 continued and only began to fall off after 25 May. In these attacks, the Argentines were forced to fly so low that the old freefall bombs with which they were largely equipped famously failed to explode. Four Skyhawks were shot down by AA systems, as were eight Daggers and five Skyhawks by Sea Harriers – these equipped with the infrared homing AIM-9L Sidewinder missile, a decisive technical advantage over the Argentine aircraft. No Sea Harriers were lost in air to air combat. While Argentine pilots tended to concentrate on the warships, only two frigates and a destroyer were sunk. The STUFT amphibious ships were quickly withdrawn before being fully unloaded, although Norland, Europic Ferry and Stromness were used to bring in supplies cross decked at sea. Shore based medical facilities and logistics had to be established rather quicker than planned.

The most serious loss occurred aptly enough on Argentina’s national day, 25 May, when Argentine Navy Super Etendards put two Exocet missiles into Atlantic Conveyor, setting it on fire and causing the total loss of the ship. Ironically these missiles had been fooled by an escorts’ chaff, redirecting themselves onto the large, defenceless target. The aircraft transport was in fact a vital ‘mission essential unit’ and three large Chinook helicopters and six smaller Wessex transport helicopters were lost with her. The loss of these assets would cast a long shadow. Luckily, one of the Chinooks had already disembarked.

Nevertheless the air battle, ‘The Battle of Clapp’s Trap’ as it has been called, had been a success for the British. As the late David Brown, a former Head of Naval Historical Branch put it, ‘although it had ended so tragically, the British forces had scored a major victory in a grim battle of attrition.’ The losses and accumulated damage to the Argentine Air Force’s three fighter bomber brigades’ had reduced effectiveness to the point at which only by husbanding their resources would they be able to make a major effort from time to time and certainly not on a daily basis.'[30]

Moore, who was now overall land forces commander, had previously ordered the Brigade to secure a lodgement ashore from which a repossession operation could be mounted. The Brigade ‘was to push forward…as far as the maintenance of its security allows, to gain information, to establish moral and physical domination over, and to forward the ultimate objective of repossession the enemy.’ It was then Moore’s intention establish his HQ in Fearless around D + 7 ‘to land 5 Brigade into the beachhead and to develop operations for the complete repossession of the Falkland Islands.’ [31] Thompson interpreted this as an instruction not to move in strength out of his positions already established.
Moore could not update his orders as he and his divisional staff were incommunicado coming south with 5 Brigade in Queen Elizabeth II, whose satellite communications had failed no sooner than it had picked up the Major General at Ascension. As London fretted about apparent inaction by the Commando Brigade, Thompson began to receive copies of signals to him ‘including among other things instructions to break out of the bridgehead. I assumed I should carry out what he had been told to do, but without being able discuss it with him to ensure that is what he actually wanted done and formed part of the plan he had in mind.[32]

Thompson planned to use 2 Para, his southernmost unit, to mount a raid on the Argentine forces at the settlement of Goose Green to establish moral and physical domination. This had to be cancelled at the last minute, because bad weather prevented the necessary supporting artillery being brought forward. The warship losses were causing considerable worries in London. General Sir John Stanier, Commander UK Land Forces visited Fieldhouse at Northwood to find ‘an atmosphere of very considerable stress at the underground Task Forces HQ.’ Fieldhouse, a submariner with little understanding of the dynamics of amphibious operations and the need to build up supplies, reportedly said ‘I’ve put five thousand troops ashore and absolutely nothing has happened! The weather is deteriorating and I’m taking stick. What are you going to do?’ That question demonstrated Fieldhouse’s mental state, he nor Stanier was in command of the two deployed brigades. Stanier formed the distinct impression that the Joint Commander simply could not sustain any further loss of ships in the confined waters of the Falkland Sound and that unless something on land were to happen quickly, he would be forced to contemplate lifting the Commando Brigade off the beaches.'[33] Nothing could demonstrate better the problems of putting command and control authority too close to political pressures and too far from operational realities.

The outburst however led Stanier to consult with the new Land Deputy to the CTF who had replaced Moore, Major General Richard Trant. It was agreed that Moore’s orders of 12 May meant Thompson had to wait for Moore. Attention then turned to Goose Green as a possible threat to the flank of an advance on Stanley. Stanier proposed that a battalion supported by artillery and naval gunfire be rapidly sent south to capture the position. He put this plan to Fieldhouse before he left. The CTF took the General’s advice.

Thompson had never intended more than a raid on Goose Green. He did not consider the Argentines there a threat to the planned advance on Stanley for which he was laying the foundations. The loss of Atlantic Conveyor ruined plans for the rapid forward movement of troops by helicopter. That might have allayed London’s jitters. Thompson and his staff were beginning to plan a forward movement on foot, when he was summoned to the Satellite Communications Terminal recently installed at what had become the Ajax Bay Brigade Maintenance Area. It was made crystal clear to Thompson that ‘The Goose Green operation was to be re-mounted and more action was required all round. Plainly the people at the back end were getting restless.’

The attack on Goose Green was thus highly political from the start. Thompson later regretted not giving 2 Para extra support that might have helped, perhaps to the extent of making a two battalion brigade attack. The nature of the reasoning behind the operation was demonstrated when the paras were horrified to hear their advance had been leaked to the media in London. Clearly the need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ outweighed operational security! In the attack, the battalion commander Lt Colonel ‘H’ Jones was killed, being later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Yet, this may have had positive effects in two ways. Politically, it provided London with a suitable hero and secondly, as Spencer Fitz-Gibbon has argued, the Paras were able to adopt a much more ‘mission command’ style of operations. Finally, demoralised by carrier-based RAF Harriers armed with cluster bombs, the Argentines surrendered on 29 May, liberating 112 civilians and capturing about 1,000 Argentines, including the Argentine helicopter borne reserve.

Thompson later overcame his initial prejudices against the operation and gave this typically fair assessment:

‘The battle was to have a profound effect on the conduct of the rest of the campaign. It signalled to the Argentines the determination of the British to succeed. It opened up the southern route to Stanley and, because the Argentines were convinced right to the end that the main British attack would come from the south, it served to confirm their assessment, distracting them from what was actually the major thrust by 3 Commando Brigade from the North and West.’

By this time the advance had begun. 45 Commando and 3 Para were ‘yomping’ or ‘tabbing’ (depending on the service) on foot to reach their first objectives, Teal Inlet Settlement and Douglas. These they reached on 28 May. Meanwhile 5 Brigade was completing its journey south. On the 27th, the large guided missile destroyer Antrim picked up General Moore, his Tactical Headquarters and Brigadier Wilson, the commander of 5 Brigade and his Reconnaissance Group. It had been decided not to risk the QEII close to the Falklands and the personnel of the brigade were transferred to Canberra, Norland and Stromness off South Georgia for the run to what was now designated the TRALA (Tug, Repair and Logistics Area). Three other STUFT went straight there – Nordic Ferry, Baltic Ferry carried equipment, while Atlantic Causeway carried much needed Sea King and Wessex helicopters. Four ASW Sea Kings were also re-purposed from the carrier group to act as transports.
Moore transferred from Antrim to Fearless on 29 May where he could keep close touch with Clapp, who now acted as his amphibious adviser. He was accompanied by Brigadier John Waters to act as his deputy but also as a possible replacement 5 Brigade commander. Wilson had not so far impressed and the condition of his ad hoc formation caused concern. In the event the problems of replacing a commander in the heat of battle outweighed those of any problems of personal leadership. Ian Gardiner had been able to assess Wilson and his brigade when his Marines had been deployed against 5 Brigade on exercise in England shortly before; ‘even as a visiting player, I was not filled with confidence. While the staff were conscientious and professional, their commander appeared to be overly concerned about how he and the brigade might appear to others, including me’.[34] In any case Wilson’s job was a challenging one. His formation completely lacked realistic training at battalion and brigade level. It had no modern radios but, perhaps more importantly, lacked experience in joint warfare which puts a premium on good communications. As Gardiner cogently put it:

‘Initially 5 Infantry Brigade were briefed that they would garrison the Islands after we [i.e. 3 Commando Brigade – EG] had captured them. Then they were told they would fight. It took years of expensive, assiduous and rigorous training preparation to make 3 Commando Brigade ready for just this sort of operation, in precisely these arduous conditions. Indeed many Royal Marines had to pinch themselves as a reminder that this was not simply another exercise. Not so for 5 Infantry Brigade, and to pitch the men of this semi-trained, improvisatory, ill supported, unready formation into an amphibious, high intensity, joint, conventional conflict, at no notice was, to say the least, to ask a very great deal of all the people in it.’ [35]

Too make matters even worse, Wilson while with Moore in QEII had obtained a promise from the Major General of equal treatment with the Commando Brigade as to the availability of helicopters and other support. Even with the extra helicopters, this would prove to be impossible, not helped by the lack of tactical loading of the Brigade’s supplies. The Commando Brigade’s march on Stanley already begun had to remain the main priority. Clapp had personally to calm Wilson down when the lack of helicopters was explained and Wilson demanded all of them. Such an allocation would have meant no supplies for the advanced forces.

Moore, although authorised by a jittery and out of touch London and Northwood to replace Thompson, had confidence in this trusted officer. As he said ‘It has been increasingly difficult to protect you from ill-informed criticism, while I have been totally devoid of real information.'[36] Thompson welcomed Moore’s arrival as he could now concentrate on his brigade responsibilities and move his command further forward to Teal Inlet using his tracked command vehicles. 45 Commando was ordered to advance on Teal Inlet to secure the new base. Forward and Sir Percival were dispatched with supplies. The commandos were in place by 30 May. And that evening, using the one available Chinook, elements of 42 Commando and three 105mm guns replaced the SAS as Mount Kent overlooking Port Stanley. Yet even as the forces landed, a battle was in progress between the SAS and an Argentine patrol – if the recce party had not been in place, there might have been a disaster. The Brigade commander congratulated himself on having stood up to strong pressure from Fieldhouse himself to advance on the feature without reconnaissance. As he put it, the clear lesson was ‘you cannot dictate tactics from 8,000 miles away.'[37] One might add that even submariners can get out of their depth. There was also another security breach emanating from London that Teal inlet was now the base for the advance on Stanley. It was lucky for the information managers, who could always dishonestly imply that the BBC or another media outlet was at fault, that the Argentines lacked the initiative to exploit these exercises in irresponsible political media management.

By 4 June the Commando Brigade was in place along the advanced line Mount Estancia (occupied by 3 Para on 1 June) - Mount Vernet - Mount Kent - Mount Challenger. Thompson expected he would soon receive 40 Commando that was to be relieved by one of the 5 Brigade units guarding the San Carlos area, to re-join the brigade. It was however decided, much to the anger of its commander who made his views plain to Moore, that this was a misuse of a valuable, well-trained unit. Moore, when publicly attributed with this error by the author shortly after the campaign, angrily said they were not Arctic trained. This was true but the overall background and training of the Marines still fitted them perfectly for an expeditionary and amphibious context – either in the Commando Brigade or as a quality reinforcement to 5 Brigade. Unlike the Welsh Guards, who tried to ‘Tab’ across the island but failed, they could have yomped forward, so diminishing stress on helicopters and landing craft. The Welsh Guards, the less capable of the two Guards units, would have been excellent static defenders of the beach head area. Guards are solid in defence if nothing else, but their poor performance in amphibious operations would soon become only too clear.
Moore was also swayed by arguments that the Argentines might still try an attack on West Falkland that would rely on amphibious expertise, so he played safe. In the event, when the Welsh Guards’ inexperience in amphibious operations led to the ‘Bluff Cove’ disaster and personnel from 40 Commando had to be sent to replace the casualties. The Guards did little to enhance their reputation with the Royal Marines when their recce unit led the Commandos into a minefield, causing casualties.[38]

5 Brigade, reinforced by 2 Para transferred back to its old formation, was ordered to advance on Stanley by the southern route, a direction of advance that had not been used by the marines because of its inherent difficulty. The combination of this approach with 5 Brigade’s weaknesses, especially its unwillingness to vouchsafe its action to others, was asking for trouble. Ian Gardiner’s succinct description of the events that followed cannot be bettered:

‘The methods applied [in the 5 Brigade advance - EG] were controversial. It started with 2 Para discovering by telephone that there were no Argentines in either Fitzroy or Bluff Cove. Now back under the command of 5 Infantry Brigade, and with the agreement of their brigade commander Brigadier Wilson, 2 Para hijacked the precious single Chinook on 2 June and packing men in as if on a London tube they flew 50 km forward and took possession of Fitzroy and Bluff Cove. They were now sitting on ground of great potential value, but they were also very isolated and vulnerable. They needed to be reinforced very quickly indeed. But an inherent problem was that the brigade hobbled by poor communications and no transport of their own. They had no means to back this view up and had not consulted those upon whom they would have to depend to do so. When he heard about it by accident, this bold but unilateral initiative placed the commander of land forces, Major General Moore, in a very difficult position He either had to tell five Infantry Brigade to back them up. A withdrawal would have been humiliating for Wilson and the Paras and would have been difficult to explain to Northwood, forever looking for good news to give to the politicians. And yet to back them up would put even more strain on a fragile logistic chain which was already struggling to sustain 3 Commando Brigade in the north. Moore chose to back them up. The advance along the southern route finished with the capture of Sapper Hill, twelve days later. In between these events, the Chinook and its strap hanging Paras were very nearly destroyed by British artillery; 600 Scots Guardsmen were almost sunk at sea by British warships; four soldiers were killed by HMS Cardiff which shot down their helicopter; a landing craft from Fearless was bombed in Choiseul Sound, killing six men: and fifty men, mainly Welsh Guards, died when the Argentine Air force damaged Sir Tristram and destroyed Sir Galahad. Many more were injured. These disasters and near-disasters were individually the results of many and various factors, but they were all a part of a struggle to balance 5 Infantry Brigade after its initial, precipitate, ill thought out move.’

Gardner does not blame the personnel of the Brigade. ‘The reputations of the Army chiefs were salvaged from a mess of Crimean proportions,’ he argues, ‘only by the innate spirit of their soldiers and junior officers, the battleworthiness of the Parachute Regiment and the dogged gallantry of the Scots Guards on Tumbledown Mountain’ [39]

The latter comment refers to the Brigade’s part in the final battles outside Port Stanley that were delayed because of the need to wait for Wilson. These actions were successful despite more command changes and confusions. On 9 June, Moore came to 3 Brigade HQ to tell Thompson that as intelligence indicated the Argentines were expecting an attack on the southern axis Thompson was to be reinforced not by 40 Commando which he really wanted, but 2 Para (under Lt Col David Chaundler, its new commander who had parachuted from a transport to be picked up by a frigate to be taken to San Carlos) and the Welsh Guards from 5 Brigade. Thompson was to capture mount Harriet, Two Sisters and Mount Longdon, Wilson would then take Mounts Tumbledown and William with his two remaining units while Thompson took Wireless Ridge and finally the Commando Brigade would capture Sapper Hill and the rest of the high ground south of Stanley.

The first objectives were achieved by 45 and 42 Commandos and 3 Para on the night of 10-11 June. The Welsh Guards were temporarily returned to 5 Brigade for the next stage, but Thompson and Wilson had a face to face disagreement at 5 Brigade HQ on 16 April as to whom the Welsh Guards would go afterwards. Wilson wanted them to take Sapper Hill but Thompson, to whom they were due to revert, had already planned to use 45 Commando for this role and then exploit with the Guards, who would move through the commandos. Orders for this had already been issued to the Guards. Thompson left the HQ having obtained apparent agreement on this plan, of which Wilson was fully aware.

In the evening, as the Argentines began to retreat, Thompson suggested to Moore that as speed was now of the essence ,the Guards stay with Wilson as they were already on the 5 Brigade radio net ‘and therefore more easily gathered up by Wilson ,since speed was now of the essence.'[40] The problem was that Wilson had issued Lt Col. Rickett, the commander of the Guards Battalion, with orders to take Sapper Hill. Rickett now had two conflicting sets of orders and perhaps naturally, chose those of Wilson, his Army superior, and went for Sapper Hill. Wilson did nothing to try to get him to abide by the original plan. Thompson was not informed. Effectively, the Welsh Guards had been hi-jacked for a move that conflicted with 3 Commando Brigade. As Thompson puts it:

‘The unilateral move by 5 Brigade without telling anybody had major potential for a major ‘blue on blue’… Sapper Hill was 45 Commando’s objective; this was known to divisional headquarters. Perhaps Tony Wilson, smarting at having lost the earlier argument over who was to have the Welsh Guards under command, was determined to take Sapper Hill himself. As 45 Commando advanced up Sapper Hill they were surprised to find it already occupied by the Welsh Guards. Luckily it was daylight and visibility was good.’ [41]

It now became a race between units to occupy Stanley as the Argentines surrendered. The conflict had, despite everything, been a signal success. The United Kingdom still had the maritime and amphibious capability to gain sufficient command of the sea and, less certainly, the air. This was exploited to mount a successful amphibious landing many thousands of miles away and to bring the land campaign to a successful conclusion. This would not have been possible without the experience of the specialist Royal Marines or the amphibious ships that provided the vital core of CTG 317.0. The problems in integrating 5 Brigade with the Commando Brigade show that such operations cannot be carried out effectively ad hoc and at short notice. Doctrine, experience and, perhaps above all, effective joint communications need to be honed over the years in repeated exercises.

The lessons for Australia seem clear. Assault ships and well-meaning rhetoric from senior officers may not be enough to create the maritime power projection capacity that Australian defence policy now so clearly requires. Relying on host nation support for air portable forces is a highly uncertain policy, as the UK found out in 1982. On a watery, blue planet, there is no alternative to using the sea if one is interested in mounting serious operations at a distance. Creating Royal Australian Marines is clearly not practical, or perhaps even desirable. But what is needed are soldiers well-trained in, and fully aware doctrinally of, the special demands of amphibious operations. This requires a wholehearted espousal of amphibious warfare, its challenges, doctrine, dynamics – and especially its communications requirements. The UK still had just enough amphibious capability in 1982 to prevail against a mid-tier opponent. Australia may in future have to face even more dangerous opponents – it must learn from our mistakes to overcome any such threat.



[1] See Dr Edward Hampshire’s forthcoming article in Contemporary British History, ‘Margaret Thatcher’s First U-turn: Francis Pym and Control of Defence spending, 1979-81′

[2] See Sir John Nott, Here Today Gone Tomorrow, Politico’s, London, 2002 for a disarmigly informative account of his perspective on the 1981 review.

[3] Draft defence review White Paper in National Archives FCO 46/2572. This wording was not followed in the published version of Cmnd. 8288.

[4] The United Kingdom Defence Programme: The Way Forward (Cmnd. 8288) paragraph 31, p10.

[5] Ian Gardiner, The Yompers; With 45 Commando in the Falklands War, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2012, pp 123-4. This is one of the finest accounts by a front line officer ever written. As the late Richard Holmes wrote on its dust jacket "Gardiner writes enchantingly with perceptive flashes on every page. Marvellous Stuff."

[6] Julian Thompson , 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands: No Picnic, p 22. The best edition is the revised Pen and Sword of Barnsley 2008 edition reprinted in 2012 cited here. The retired officer could be rather more frank than he could have been in 1985 when the original edition, No Picnic, appeared.

[7] Quoted ibid.

[8] Ibid.,p 3

[9] L Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: Volume II, War and Diplomacy; Revised and Updated Edition, Routledge, London and New York, 2007, p55. This revised edition should always be used in preference to the flawed hardback first edition. The official historian must however be congratulated for a remarkably frank, full and ‘warts and all’ account.

[10] Ibid. pp 2-3

[11] Quoted in Freedman, Op. Cit., p 54

[12] Thompson, Op. Cit., p 25

[13] Ibid., p 25

[14] Michael Clapp and Ewen Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands; The Battle of San Carlos Water, Second Edition 2007 reprinted 2012, Pen and Sword, Barnsley , pp 56-7

[15] See Woodwards’s defence in the Preface to the second edition of his book written with Patrick Robinson One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, pp xxiii – xxxiii of Harper Collins, London paperback third edition of 2012
[16] Clapp and Southby Tailyour, Op. Cit. p 290

[17] Thompson, Op. Cit.

[18] Clapp and Southby -Taylour , Op. Cit., p 69

[19] Freedman, Op. Cit., p211

[20] Quoted Clapp and Southby-Tailyour, Op. Cit. p 74.

[21] Ibid. , p75

[22] Nick Van Der Bijl and David Aldea, Fifth Infantry Brigade in the Falklands, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, p24

[23] Freedman, Op Cit. P 215

[24] Ibid,. pp216-7

[25] Clapp and Southby-Tailyour, p 88

[26] Ibid. p 99 This book includes an extensive explanation of the logic of this decision.

[27] Thompson, Op. Cit., p50

[28] Ibid.p62

[29] Ibid., p 71

[30] David Brown, The Royal Navy and the Falklands War, Leo Cooper, London, 1987, p 225

[31] Quoted Thompson , Op. Cit. p 80

[32] Ibid.p 81

[33] An interview with Stanier quoted in J Wilsey, H Jones VC; The Life and Death of an Unusual Hero, arrow Books, London, p 248.

[34] Gardiner, Op. Cit. P 124

[35] Ibid., p125

[36] Quoted Freedman, Op. Cit., p586.

[37] Thompson, Op. Cit., p 114

[38] Interview with one of those casualties shortly after the war at BRNC Dartmouth. It was the premature end of a promising young Royal Marines officer’s career.

[39] Gardner, Op. Cit., pp 126-7

[40] Thompson, Op Cit., p 182

[41] Thompson, Op Cit., p 184

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