The Argentine fleet returned to its base after the initial landing on 2 April, its welcome as the force which had regained the islands somewhat muted by the United Nations resolution calling for a withdrawal and the news that the British were dispatching a task force. There would be nothing much that the Argentine Navy could do for at least two weeks until the British task force arrived, so all ships were replenished, and their mechanical defects were repaired. The British Government declared that a ‘Maritime Exclusion Zone’ would exist within the area 200 nautical miles from the centre of the Falklands; any Argentine ships attempting to enter that zone after 12 April were likely to be attacked. This move, which was to have such a weakening effect on the Argentine build-up, was made possible by the British possession of nuclear-powered submarines with their almost unlimited underwater endurance. Two of these vessels, Spartan and Splendid, had actually sailed for the South Atlantic on 1 April, as soon as the British realized that an Argentine force was about to land in the Falklands. The British press even suggested that a third submarine was already in the South Atlantic at the beginning of April, but this was an error, albeit a source of Argentine anxiety. Spartan and Splendid were both on station by 12 April, when the Maritime Exclusion Zone came into effect. What the Argentines did not know was that the British submarine commanders had not yet received permission to attack ships, because of the hope that negotiations to persuade the Argentines to withdraw from the islands might still succeed. The Maritime Exclusion Zone was, therefore, largely a bluff at this stage, but the Argentine leaders could not rely upon this.
The Falklands could not be supplied by air alone, and what might be called the Argentine ‘blockade-running’ operation can be split into three phases. Four ships were sailed before the Maritime Exclusion Zone came into effect. The Rio Cincel and the Lago Argentino, both loaded with air force stores, were able to deliver their cargoes and return to the mainland before 12 April. The Cabo San Antonio and the Bahía Buen Suceso, carrying mainly naval stores, vehicles and equipment for the marine units ashore, reached Stanley just before 12 April. Cabo San Antonio was actually in the periscope sights of the submarine Spartan on four consecutive days when she was anchored in the approaches to Stanley Harbour. But Spartan did not attack, and this ship later returned safely to the mainland. The Bahía Buen Suceso was kept at Stanley, firstly to make use of her accommodation and later to distribute stores around the island garrisons.
But the introduction of the Maritime Exclusion Zone caught four other ships still in mainland ports. These were the Formosa, loaded with army rations and with X Brigade’s heavy equipment, the Rio Carcaraña with army weapons and stores, the Ciudad de Córdoba with III Brigade’s equipment, and the Isla de los Estados also with army stores. The junta decided to suspend the sailings of these ships. It reasoned that if any of them were sunk then there would be criticism in Argentina over the loss, and that if the ships arrived and the news became known in Britain that the garrison had been so heavily resupplied then it would become harder to get a favourable response from Britain in the current negotiations.
The army commanders in the Falklands were, however, desperate to have their supplies, particularly of food; the level of reserves was down to forty-eight hours at one stage, and the scale of ration issues had to be reduced. So the junta reluctantly authorized the sailing of the four ships. They were sailed independently and unescorted, it being correctly assumed that the British would not attack unarmed, solitary merchant ships while negotiations continued. The Formosa sailed first and reached Stanley safely, bringing the food reserves up to fifteen days, but this was reduced by half when the units of III Brigade were sent over by air soon afterwards. III Brigade’s equipment, in the Ciudad de Córdoba, never arrived; this ship struck a rock soon after sailing and had to return to the mainland. The Río Carcaraña and the Isla de los Estados sailed later and both managed to reach Stanley before hostilities commenced, but they were not able to unload quickly and would be trapped in the islands.
A good contribution is available to illustrate these events. It comes from merchant navy Captain Edgardo Dell’Elicine, master of the Río Carcaraña, who was between voyages when the Falklands situation developed. His employers were ELMA (Empresa Líneas Maritimas Argentinas), a large, state-owned company with more than fifty cargo ships. The Rio Cincel, Lago Argentino and Formosa, mentioned earlier, were all ELMA ships chartered by the Argentine Navy for their voyages to the Falklands. This is Captain Dell’Elicine’s account:
I had volunteered my services on 2 April, asking if I could do anything to help in the Malvinas. I was called to the head office by the Operations Manager on 13 April. I didn’t think that the army could keep up its logistic effort without ships, and ELMA’s help would be needed. I knew the private shipowners would not be very keen. I was asked if I was still willing to go. Looking back on it, I think I made a big mistake, but there was no turning back.
I was ordered to take over the Rio Carcaraña, which had been laid up for nearly a year; they had thought that its useful life was over. I had to prepare the ship for operations; we had her seaworthy in forty-eight hours. There was a lot of indecision over what we were going to do. I went to Navy Headquarters several times but kept coming back without orders. Then on the 19th, there was a big commotion, and I was ordered to be ready to sail that night. I had no crew at that time, and the ship was not loaded. We got a crew, moved berth and loaded on the 20th. There were lorries, much fuel in drums – jet fuel, diesel, etc. — and containers, at least one of which was full of television sets for the kelpers; as an Argentine, I could not understand that one. There was also 200 tons of fresh food as frozen cargo; the army in the Malvinas thought that food was the most welcome part of the cargo.
We sailed on the 22nd. I was ordered to keep my mouth shut about the destination, not even being able to tell the crew, but the whole port of Buenos Aires knew we were loading for the Malvinas. We made a good voyage, and I cheated the British Navy in their Exclusion Zone by sailing down to the deep south and approaching the islands from due west. I made landfall on the little Isla Pájaro — what you call Bird Island; I think the naval liaison officer was impressed with our navigation. We came into Puerto Argentino – Stanley – on the 26th. I don’t think they were expecting us because a reception committee of four navy jets met us on the way in. They circled round us for several minutes; I could see they were armed to the teeth. The flight leader eventually identified the colours on my funnel as belonging to ELMA and knew we were friendly. I am pleased they were navy pilots; the air force might have been more trigger-happy. Then we were met by a Coast Guard ship which handed over on a long pole a very rough chart of the local minefields. We came in very close to the coast, between the land and the minefields, and anchored in the outer harbour. I was surprised to see the Formosa, another ELMA ship, there.
I reported to the navy: ‘Well, here we are. It’s all yours.’ The very first thing they wanted off was that container of television sets for the kelpers. I thought that was disgusting; the army needed ammunition and food far more urgently than the kelpers needed those television sets, but it was a political decision.
Those television sets were part of the ‘hearts and minds’ policy by which the Argentine administration hoped to win over the Falklands civilians. Two hours of transmission were relayed each evening from the mainland. There was an interesting sequel. The sets were sold on generous hire-purchase terms, but the war ended, and the Argentines departed, leaving the civilian buyers with the sets after paying only two monthly instalments – but only able to play video recordings.
An ‘air bridge’ had been put into operation when the Maritime Exclusion Zone came into being. A major effort was made using C-130 Hercules and Fokker F28s of the Argentine Air Force, Lockheed Electras and F-28s of the Navy, Boeing 737s of Aerolíneas Argentinas and BAC 111s of the internal airline Austral. When that first air bridge closed in the evening of 29 April, just before the British task force arrived, more than five hundred successful flights had been made to Stanley, bringing in approximately 10,700 men and 5,500 tons of cargo, mainly ammunition and weapons. But this means of supply could not satisfy the garrison’s entire needs, and the units in the Falklands would be left with grave shortages of food and many items of equipment.
The Argentine high command overestimated the ability of the British to reach the Falklands with a force capable of making a landing on the islands. The British ships and military units had been dispatched in haphazard fashion, with big public displays being given to some departures while others were in secret. The British policy over this was twofold, firstly hoping to persuade the Argentines to withdraw from the islands by a public display of strength and determination, secondly to confuse the Argentines over the exact composition of the task force. The first aim was not achieved, but the second one was.
The next British moves were determined by two factors. An early success was desirable, to sustain support at home and to put further pressure on Argentina to conform to the United Nations resolution to withdraw, but no major landing would be possible in the Falklands until the equipment of the landing units had been sorted and restowed at Ascension Island after being loaded so haphazardly in the rush to sail from Britain. South Georgia, with its small Argentine garrison, was chosen for the early success needed. The British task force thus split into three parts. Most of the British warships were pushed on to the Falklands to carry out preliminary operations there. The main landing ships and military units remained at Ascension to sort out their equipment and to await a further reinforcement – a parachute battalion whose ship would not reach Ascension until 7 May. A small force of ships containing troops made for South Georgia.
The Argentine Navy was responsible for South Georgia, with Admiral Anaya taking personal control. His intentions for the area went through several phases. Initially, he wanted to set up a scientific station as a practical example of Argentine sovereignty, but this idea was overtaken by military events. When news arrived that British ships were approaching South Georgia, Anaya’s first reaction was to write off the place as untenable and order his men there to give up without a fight. But Anaya changed his mind again and dispatched a reinforcement of a composite marine platoon of about forty men under Lieutenant-Commander Luis Lagos aboard the submarine Santa Fé, with orders to make a stand if attacked but then to surrender if the British proved to be in overwhelming strength. In this way Anaya hoped that an easy recapture of South Georgia would satisfy British honour and that the British would not proceed with operations against the Falklands. The British attacked, being successful because of exactly the same factors as had been available to the Argentine attackers earlier in the month, the gunfire support of warships and the availability of helicopters, although the British lost two helicopters early in the operation when they crashed in a snowstorm. No one was killed in the fighting on South Georgia, but a crewman from the Santa Fé was badly wounded when the submarine was attacked by British helicopters, and another man in its crew was tragically killed by his Royal Marine guard after the submarine was captured when the guard thought that the Argentine sailor was trying to scuttle the submarine. Petty Officer Quartermaster Félix Artuso thus became the first fatal casualty in Argentina’s attempts to hold the places taken from the British earlier in April.
The brief action in South Georgia ended on 26 April. Argentina’s presence here lasted just twenty-three days. The British took 180 prisoners in South Georgia, a figure which includes Sr Davidoff’s hapless scrap-metal workers, the various marine parties and the crew of the Santa Fé, which was damaged and beached, the first ship lost to Argentina in the war. The prisoners were soon returned to Argentina, via the Uruguayan city of Montevideo, which would act as a neutral exchange point for many more men later in the war. Only one prisoner was not immediately returned. Lieutenant Astiz was taken to Britain to be questioned about several foreign people who had disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s, but the British respected his status as a prisoner of war, refused to hand him over to other governments and returned him to Argentina later in the year.
The fall of South Georgia marked the start of a massive distortion of events by the junta. Official communiques described a prolonged and heroic defence against overwhelming British forces, with commando parties dispersing into the wilderness and holding out long after the main fighting ended — the last part of which was completely untrue. The senior Argentine officer ashore, Lieutenant-Commander Lagos, was court-martialled in 1983 ‘for contravening Argentina’s military code by surrendering without having exhausted his ammunition and without three-quarters of his men becoming casualties’. Vice-Admiral Lombardo attended the court martial and testified as to the exact nature of the orders issued, and this enabled the officer to be acquitted.
Sr Davidoff’s scrap metal remained uncollected, and after the war he was not able to obtain a refund of his payment to the owners.
As the last days of April passed, the Argentines made their final preparations to meet the British. Their fleet had sailed and was exercising hard, but only in shallow coastal waters which British submarines could not enter. Air force and naval aircraft had been extensively practising attacks on ships. Most of the air units were now deployed to makeshift bases in the south of Argentina from where they would be within range of the Falklands. A few ships had to go into port again after the hard exercises but these soon returned to sea, and the entire surface navy stood ready for action. It was still believed that the support ships seen with the British task force were carrying landing units.
The only warship sent into the exclusion zone around the Falklands was the submarine San Luis, which sailed from Mar del Plata on 11 April. After two days spent exercising and testing its equipment, the submarine reached the edge of the zone on 17 April and was ordered to remain just outside it while negotiations were still taking place; the Argentine ships were ordered not to fire the first shots. Then, after the loss of South Georgia, the San Luis was ordered into the zone and it reached its patrol area north of Stanley on 29 April. The British commanders were apprehensive about the dangers posed by Argentina’s submarine force, but the San Luis would be the only one to operate. Her sister ship Salta was not allowed to sail because a defective propeller shaft caused too much noise which would have attracted attack. The older Santa Fé was put out of action in South Georgia, and her sister ship the Santiago del Estero was not even able to submerge; she sailed from her base at Mar del Plata, in the hope that the British would believe her to be at sea, but was hidden in Bahia Blanca harbour for the remainder of the war. Two modern submarines of German design, the Santa Cruz and the San Juan, were still under construction and could not be made ready, although the British did not know that.
The Argentines received the final confirmation that the British task force was about to reach the Falklands area when it was spotted and reported on 29 April. The report came from the Narwal, which was one of several deep-sea fighting trawlers with naval officers aboard which, under orders from Naval Intelligence, were looking out for the British task force. Narwal gave particularly good service, spotting and reporting the task force on this day and making contact again later.
Friday 30 April was an important day. It was apparent that negotiations were failing and that serious action was about to commence. The United States ended its period of even-handed neutrality and firmly declared itself in favour of the British cause, a severe diplomatic setback for Argentina. It was on this day also that Britain had announced that the Maritime Exclusion Zone was to become a Total Exclusion Zone, with aircraft, as well as ships, now being liable to attack in the zone. A note spelling out the full implications of British policy had been delivered by the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentines on 23 April. It read:
In announcing the establishment of a Maritime Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands, Her Majesty’s Government made it clear that this measure was without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in the exercise of its right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. In this connection Her Majesty’s Government now wishes to make clear that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft, which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of British Forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response. All Argentine aircraft, including civil aircraft engaging in surveillance of these British forces, will be regarded as hostile and are liable to be dealt with accordingly.
The main implication of this warning for the action about to commence was that any ship or aircraft approaching the exclusion zone might now be attacked if it was considered a threat to British units. When asked Vice-Admiral Lombardo said, if in the light of the later sinking of the General Belgrano just outside the exclusion zone, he fully understood the intent of the message. He answered, without any hesitation or qualification, that he and his colleagues realized the implications of the note. He went on to say that his first thought was that the British would use the new conditions to attack the mainland air base at Rio Grande to neutralize the Exocet-equipped Super Étendard aircraft there, and he sent four battalions of marine infantry to that area and asked the army to provide an anti-aircraft unit.
The fear that the British might land special forces to attack the mainland air bases led to a tragedy on 30 April. A Huey helicopter of the army’s 601st Combat Aviation Battalion was searching the coastline near the Comodoro Rivadavia air base, following a report that men had landed from the sea, when it crashed in mist and early-morning darkness. All eleven men on board were killed – the three-man helicopter crew, together with two officers and six soldiers from the staff of a military college. One of the officers was Colonel Clodoveo Arévalo, who would be the most senior-ranking Argentine serviceman to die in the war.