Support Operations at Ascension Island during the Falklands War I

If the world understood little about the Falkland Islands before the Argentine invasion, it knew even less about the remote island in the Atlantic towards which the British Task Force was now heading. Ascension Island had not figured prominently in history since its Portuguese discovery in 1501. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame was that Royal Marines had garrisoned the island in 1815 as precaution against French occupation after Britain and her coalition allies exiled Napoleon to the nearby island of St Helena. In years that followed, Ascension became little more than a temporary way station for passing slave traders and merchant ships, until the 1940s, when the United States began leasing it from Britain. Americans constructed an airfield there at the time to serve as a staging base and to interdict German ships in the Atlantic during the Second World War. In the 1970s, their focus evolved to deep-space tracking, but the island remained largely unchanged, sparsely populated and with few resources. Until April 1982, the only occasional visitors to Ascension were naturalists looking for its green turtles, wild donkeys and sooty terns. In coming weeks, though, it would contribute so significantly to overall British planning and war efforts that some would claim, ‘If Ascension Island had not existed, we would have had to create it.’ There can be little doubt that the British would have created it differently had they had the power to do so. But although far from ideal, this little island made the Falkland Islands War possible.

Located just below the Equator, midway between South America and Africa as well as between Britain and the Falklands, Ascension is a small volcanic outcrop of about thirty-eight square miles, a place of dramatic contrasts. Its highest point, the 2,800ft Green Mountain, presents a tropical appearance from far away, with a small bamboo rain forest on its upper slopes. But lush vegetation atop the mountain belies both the barrenness of lower slopes and the dryness of the entire island. Green Mountain, as its name implies, claims the only greenery on Ascension Island. It is the single place high enough to capture rainfall sufficient for vegetation to grow. The trade winds, which slap the coastline at about eighteen knots every day and help maintain temperatures of 18° to 24° Centigrade year-round, deposit a mere six inches of annual drizzle elsewhere on the island. Little fresh water accumulates routinely on Ascension, forcing inhabitants to rely mostly upon distilled seawater. Although one can spot occasional sandy beaches along the rugged coastline, getting to them is quite another matter because of large swells, themselves teeming with sharks and other voracious sea life, that unpredictably pound the shores. Those swells prevent conventional landing craft from coming ashore anywhere but at a place called English Bay on the north-west coast, and even there the beach is sufficient for only a single landing craft. In 1982, there were no fixed ports on the island to offload vessels, just a single stone jetty at the capital, Georgetown. Severe sea swells forced ships carrying supplies to anchor nearly half a mile off the coast and then shuttle goods ashore by lighter to the jetty. The island may have offered a great geographical location, but up close it looked like a barren landscape of volcanic ash, jagged rock and clinker, all surrounded by an unforgiving sea.

At the time of the Falklands invasion, a thousand people inhabited Ascension, all of whom were employed by or were contractors for British and American companies on the island. Over half of these, dubbed ‘Saints’, were from the island of St Helena, 700 miles to the south-east. Employers included Cable & Wireless, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Pan American Airlines, South Africa Cable and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There remained no indigenous population. All residents lived in housing built and furnished by their employers in one of three settlements: Georgetown on the west coast, Two Boats in the centre and an American camp near the airfield called Wideawake, operated by Pan American. There were no hotels, buses, taxis, or rental car firms. Visitors were not allowed on the island without permission from the British Administrator. Children reaching eighteen years and unemployed, as well as pensioners, were required to return home. Food and other goods came from either American or British commissaries or from a couple of shops supplied by steamer twice a month. Sea passage remained the primary link to the outside world for many, particularly those with homes on St Helena since no airfield existed there. Life on Ascension was isolated. Although there was a golf course, it was reputed to be one of the worst in the world due to its lack of greenery. Consequently, residents expected to see few visitors.

Life for those on Ascension that spring changed dramatically. Inhabitants enthusiastically supported British efforts to transform their curiously remote island into a vibrant launch pad for British forces and supplies. Despite the eagerness of its inhabitants to assist, though, the island simply could not sustain large numbers of support personnel. There was little extra accommodation and insufficient fresh water for large numbers of new residents, however temporary their presence might be, since the island relied upon desalinated water. Limited plant output meant that freshwater production alone would necessarily restrict military presence on the island. The British had lots of men and supplies heading toward this island now, but there was only so much the islanders and their island could do. The rest would take careful planning and improvement in the weeks ahead.

Whatever challenges Ascension posed, the British welcomed its ideal location and availability with open arms. They had no alternatives for providing operational sustainment to the Task Force heading toward the South Atlantic. Countries in South America were not about to offer their ports and airfields as platforms for launching a war against neighbouring Argentina, whether or not they agreed with what Argentina had done. Even countries in Africa were unwilling to face the political uproar that might ensue. Fortunately, the continuing lease to America now left the island open for British use. In an Exchange of Notes in 1962, the two nations had agreed that the United States would grant such ‘logistic, administration or operating facilities at the Airfield … considered by the Government of the United Kingdom to be necessary in connection with its use by United Kingdom military aircraft’. Britain invoked its prerogative to utilize the airfield according to these agreements immediately following Argentina’s invasion of East Falkland. They knew the Americans had improved and extended the airfield to 10,000 feet in 1966 as US Air Force needs arose in the Eastern Test Range, making it capable of accepting the world’s largest aircraft. Despite having a first-class runway, though, Wideawake offered only a small hardstand area for parking and no parallel taxiways. Thick layers of volcanic dust prevented helicopters from using adjacent areas for landing without ingesting dust into their engines. Fuel storage capacity and aircraft maintenance facilities remained limited. Wideawake simply was not designed for heavy air traffic or for an influx of lots of supplies, but it would become the salvation for a task force that had departed so quickly.

The United States government started helping the British the same weekend that Argentina invaded the Falklands. The bottom-line directive to the US Air Force’s single military representative at Ascension, a lieutenant colonel controlling operations at Wideawake as part of the Air Force’s Eastern Test Range, was reportedly to provide all the help the British needed ‘but not to get caught doing it’. He and numerous other United States government employees there provided considerable help during the hectic months to follow. Other agencies of the United States government would assist as well by secretly pushing thousands of tons of supplies and millions of gallons of fuel to the island to help the British, while Secretary of State Haig continued his shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires.

The first British personnel departed the United Kingdom for Ascension on 3 April aboard a C–130 Hercules routed through Gibraltar and Dakar. Their task was to establish an airhead at Wideawake and prepare to offload about a dozen other C–130s that would start arriving later that day with supplies. The initial organization was small: two officers from the Royal Air Force’s 38 Air Support Group, an officer and six airmen from the United Kingdom Mobile Air Movements Squadron, an officer and six sailors to form a forward logistics unit for the Royal Navy and an officer and eight sailors to support naval helicopters.4 Known as the British Forces Support Unit or BFSU, this organization expanded considerably in weeks to follow. Since initial members of the unit and the bulk of the Task Force were from the Royal Navy, it was not surprising that the commanding officer came from the Navy too. When Captain Robert McQueen arrived to take command, he brought authority to the small organization. His chain of command went directly through the Vice Chief of Defence Staff for Personnel and Logistics to the Chief himself. McQueen later recounted some of the specific guidelines he received at the MoD before departing: ‘The first was that tri-service numbers on the island would not be more than about two hundred and the second that I should have the power of veto on anyone sent there.’

The responsibilities of the BFSU were to get a forward sustainment base started and then to keep logistics operations going. They had to initiate logistics operations within hours of arrival and then start coordinating operations for days ahead, not knowing necessarily what would be arriving, since much of that was still being determined back in the United Kingdom. They had to decide what improvements were needed to administer logistics operations and to prepare to supervise the implementation of those improvements when resources arrived. They also needed to start planning a defence of the island in case that became necessary. There was not much time. What resulted from their efforts was a forward sustainment base that provided five distinct military benefits. Firstly, Ascension provided an anchorage for the fleet as it headed south, a place where ships could take on additional supplies that might have been consumed in getting that far south or left behind for any number of reasons upon departure. Secondly, it provided the airfield needed by the Royal Air Force to cut flight distances to the Falklands. Wideawake would become indispensable to sustaining long-range reconnaissance missions within days of the invasion, and for Vulcan bombing missions in a matter of weeks. For pure logistics reasons, it became essential for maintaining an air bridge to the Task Force. No matter how good logistics planning might become, ships and ground units would eventually need quick replacement of critical stores and perhaps people. The fastest way to achieve this would be by airdrop from planes launched out of Ascension. Thirdly, the island would provide a place for the Task Force to get supplies left behind and to sort out the mess that was then crowding the galleys of ships. The waters off Ascension, in spite of irritating and unpredictable swells, were far more welcoming than the barren ocean extending from there southward. Fourthly, Ascension Island provided a place where soldiers and marines of all specialties could hone skills required later if political efforts to resolve tensions failed. Not much space ashore was available, but it would have to suffice. And finally, it became a location where senior leaders of the Task Force could rendezvous to discuss developments and finalize plans before it proceeded further, while politicians continued to try to avoid war. There would be no other place to huddle before the Falklands.

Members of the BFSU scarcely had time to drop their bags in the small room of a hangar that would be their headquarters, before the airflow started. They would eventually opt for a tent a little further away to avoid some of the noise and bustle of activity at Wideawake. Three Lynx helicopters arrived that same day by C–130 from Lyneham, complete with air and ground crews and supporting supplies. Modified to carry Sea Skua air-to-surface missiles, the Lynxes flew on board RFA Fort Austin as she passed Ascension heading south to support Endurance. They would provide some much-needed protection for this unarmed stores ship heading alone toward the possible war zone. Three naval Wessex 5 transport helicopters arrived on April 4 aboard a civilian Short Belfast cargo plane. The BFSU made them operational by the time two more arrived on 6 April. Nimrods of 42 Squadron from St Mawgan and Kinloss followed the Belfast to provide communications links to nuclear submarines and to assist in any search-and-rescue missions that resulted from other aircraft flying to and from the island.6 The Nimrods were just the first of a steady stream of planes landing at Wideawake and occupying the limited tarmac.

The BFSU did not arrive with much organic capability to conduct extensive airhead operations. Instead, they were dependent on assistance from people and equipment from the United States who were already there, to include two Pan American air traffic controllers accustomed to seeing only a couple of hundred aircraft landings annually. Soon, however, they would see as many as 250 in a single day of April, reportedly making Wideawake busier than Chicago’s O’Hare at the time.

As ships of the Task Force arrived, the overcrowding would seem even worse as everyone scurried to juggle both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in and out of the airfield as replenishment operations got underway. The work started with the arrival of Fort Austin, which also took on added supplies and dozens of Royal Marines who would participate in the plan to recapture South Georgia. Fort Austin then continued south on 9 April. The following day, the destroyer Antrim with the frigate Plymouth and RFA tanker Tidespring arrived to embark stores as well.

Fort Austin was the first Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel to take supplies to the South Atlantic with the help of the BFSU. It is worth taking a moment to trace her path on that first resupply mission, because Fort Austin’s typical missions after departing Ascension accentuate aspects of the war often overlooked: the seemingly endless work performed by auxiliary vessels to sustain fighting ships in the Task Force and the corresponding work that the BFSU performed to keep a single auxiliary vessel supplied. During the three-day passage south, the crew of Fort Austin started preparing their first loads for delivery both by jackstay and helicopter. After linking up with Endurance, whose supplies were down to two days of food, they delivered 200 loads before receiving passengers and stores for backhaul to Ascension. The crew then worked most of the night preparing loads for the Antrim group heading south from Ascension. Fort Austin linked up with the ships the next morning and worked nonstop until about midnight, delivering over 300 more loads to them. On the afternoon of the following day, 14 April, she received directions to rendezvous with Sheffield, Brilliant, Glasgow, Coventry and Arrow. Fort Austin’s crew scrambled to prepare another 380 loads for issue as demands kept coming in. After conducting two jackstay transfers for each ship, one for general stores and one for ammo, she received another 200 loads of backhaul material ranging from training ammunition to excess paint. Then it was back to Ascension, just at the time Royal Marines were arriving, to get as much as possible from the BFSU in forty-eight hours before heading south again. Helicopters and lighters shuttled 450 loads of supplies to the ship and took 120 backhaul loads to the island during those two days. Fort Austin then returned south. In these first two trips, she discharged over a thousand loads to keep other ships going. She embarked another thousand in return, most of which the BFSU would see at Ascension. There are countless other stories just like that of Fort Austin – resupply ships who were able to keep others supplied because of the base at Ascension and which, at the same time, became only part of an immense workload developing ashore.

In less than a week, the small BFSU had started fulfilling the first of its logistics functions. Dozens more ships arrived at Ascension to take on supplies and then continue southward. A challenge for British logisticians now became keeping these ships resupplied without complete reliance on much slower sea lines of communication. The Royal Air Force’s C–130 Hercules, the primary British aircraft for delivering supplies by air, became the solution to that challenge.

People back in the United Kingdom had been working on modifications to the C–130 at this time, to increase its ability to ‘keep up with’ the Task Force. The C–130 had a range of about 2,000 miles depending on payload. This meant, unfortunately, it could get only a quarter of the way to the Falklands from Ascension before having to turn around. Ascension Island had halved the distance between the United Kingdom and the Falklands, making it possible to continue airdrops of critical supplies to ships. But now something had to be done soon to increase the operating range of aircraft so that air dispatchers could get supplies further south. The Royal Air Force had in the past thought of having its C–130s fitted for air–to–air refuelling, but the value of this did not justify the cost, given the comparatively short range within NATO areas. Now the situation was different. Three modifications to the C–130 commenced to enable it to cover more distance.

Starting on 16 April, the Engineering Wing at Lyneham began devising auxiliary tanks for installation in forward cabins of C–130s to add more internal fuel capacity. Some cylindrical tanks with a capacity of 825 Imperial gallons happened to be on hand. Within five days, the Wing fitted a pair into a C–130 and found they could increase its range by three to four hours. They later determined that installing four tanks increased the range further but limited payload to about twenty–five per cent of the aircraft’s original maximum. Modifications proceeded to create both two– and four–tank models. The modified aircraft were nicknamed LR 2 (for Long Range) or LR 4, depending on the number of tanks installed. The insides of these C–130s started to take on the appearance of airborne fuel depots. Cargo was stored on ramp doors only since no room remained in cargo bays.