Support Operations at Ascension Island during the Falklands War III

Resolving the supply problem would not be achieved without adding to the friction between logisticians afloat and those ashore. Soldiers from Ordnance Squadron, Commando Logistic Regiment came ashore eventually to take over supply operations around the airhead under the supervision of Captain McQueen. A composite supply team from Kineton and Donnington depots in the United Kingdom later reinforced the commandos. Together, these men, using materiel–handling equipment drawn from various units, sorted through the maze of pallets and boxes. Some remained on Ascension for the duration of the war to receive, sort, hold, repack, and repalletize supplies as necessary. If items were to be taken further by helicopter, as was often the case, then rigging teams at the airfield prepared the supplies in appropriate nets. In a relatively quick time, the detachment restored order to the supply situation on Ascension. A major headache for them soon became not what was on hand but priorities for issue. Virtually everything arriving from the United Kingdom had been labelled with the highest priority, whether it was ammunition or ironing boards.

Sometimes units’ actions exacerbated the situation. An episode related a decade later by retired Major General Ian Baxter, then the colonel directing administration and logistics for Major General Moore, regards the Rapier air defence missile system being deployed for the commandos. Baxter indicated that, in 1982, Royal Marines, including himself and Brigadier Thompson, knew little about the Rapier system. They were dumbfounded to discover the assortment of equipment that accompanied the system to keep it operating. When senior leaders saw the extent of these support necessities, they scarcely believed their eyes and doubted all was needed. And so they directed much of it right back to England, at the time not understanding the importance of it all. Eventually, the Rapier equipment had to find a way back to Ascension and on to ships. It intentionally became stowed in bottom cargo holds to prevent damage by salt water, which meant it would take more time to offload later.

A major task facing Commodore Clapp at this time was re–stowing the thousands of tons of supplies that had so hurriedly been stashed aboard ships in the United Kingdom. During the two weeks at sea, logisticians recorded most storage locations. At Ascension, they commenced the complex process of shifting items between ships and relocating them within ships so that, if war became a reality, what was needed would be ready. By this time, Wideawake Airfield had been averaging eight cargo planes per day packed with supplies and equipment. About 1500 tons of supplies had arrived, a third of which were waiting for 3 Commando Brigade upon its arrival. Logisticians afloat worked with those ashore to shuttle supplies to ships. Priorities were to issue two days of ammunition and rations to units, to configure LSLs with another two days of supplies for backup, to make sure artillery ammunition was loaded with guns and to consolidate demolitions and other engineer stores with 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers.

Complicating matters at first was the inability of LPD Fearless to dock herself down to release her LCUs. Since she arrived so low on fuel after foregoing bunkering, she was now too high in the water to release the landing craft. Consequently, re–stow started without the benefit of the only LCUs in the Task Force at the time. Helicopters ferried stores from island holding areas to ships and between ships. Soon, floating parking lots of mexeflotes were bobbing up and down in the Atlantic swell among the strange array of ships off Ascension. Mexeflotes moved to and from ships and became floating staging areas, as men removed layers of supplies to get at what was needed. Logisticians worked as fast as they could. They redistributed War Maintenance Reserves between ships while trying to preserve some flexibility to support eventual tactical plans. Their focus remained on configuring two of the LSLs – Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale – with two days of supplies for the brigade, consisting mainly of ammunition, packed fuel and rations, a total of 200 tons. Another four days of supply would be on Stromness, with sixteen additional days on Elk. These two ships would keep backup supplies available at the edge of the Total Exclusion Zone for re–stocking LSLs as required.

Another aim of the re–stow was to issue first–line supplies to units. Up to this time, many units had been separated from supplies they would require when landing in the Falklands. Units now needed their initial issues of ammunition, food and other selected items on the same ships that would carry them south. That way, they would have what they needed for the amphibious assault.

Re–stowage took a full eleven days. The BFSU’s helicopter support element ashore prepared hundreds of loads during this time. In all there were six helicopters supporting the re–stow: two Wessexes, three Sea Kings and one heavy–lift CH47 Chinook. In one day pilots few 138 Wessex, 40 Chinook, and 40 Sea King sorties with supplies from the airfield to ships. Helicopter pilots routinely refuelled hot at the airfield with engines running amidst fixed wing aircraft, all without mishap. A shortage of lifting gear and cargo nets slowed operations at times. If loads were prepared and requirements changed, then the loads had to be dismantled and repackaged. It was, as one member recalled, ‘damned hard work’.

The work was no easier on ships anchored offshore. The only way of lifting items on or off most ships was by air. Considerable work had to precede the arrival of helicopters. Because items had been stuffed every which way in vessels, it was routinely the case that supplies on upper decks had to be repositioned to create space before cranes could lift supplies up from lower decks for the helicopters to move. The passage south had not been kind to the haphazardly loaded supplies either. As men moved cranes to retrieve ammunition from MV Elk, they discovered ‘rough seas had dislodged some of the load, so instead of neat pallets, everything was stuck in the middle. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.’

Nor was it easy for soldiers on mexeflote platforms bobbing up and down in swells to ferry stocks. One crew had just retired for the night aboard Sir Lancelot after finishing a long day of moving cargo throughout the anchorage. The Officer of the Watch roused them out of their bunks after a few hours and informed them that the LSL had to move to sea because hostile ships were in the area. To save time, Lancelot was to sail without mexeflotes and crews. So the crew was cast afloat on its mexeflote to fend for themselves. Conveniently for them, they found a mooring buoy in the dark, close to the beach, and secured themselves to it. The only protection for them on the floating raft was a few cargo nets and ammunition boxes, which they quickly formed into a shelter.

The threat never materialized, but the British took few chances. They had no viable defence in place at Ascension at the time, and they knew Argentina was capable of ranging large aircraft to the island or discharging special forces from ships. Its merchant vessel Rio de la Plata passed within four miles of Ascension on 25 April. Two days later, another Argentine merchant ship showed up in the area. Then, on 2 May, a Soviet spy trawler appeared in the distance. Such developments combined to create concern for the security of the Task Force. The British already were planning to deploy more Harriers to Ascension to link up with Task Force shipping. Eventually, some would be used to provide protection for ships operating in the area. As an interim precaution, ships received instructions to weigh anchor and steam out to sea at the end of each day; unfortunately, this slowed the re–stow process even further by preventing shuttling of supplies at night. Eight Harrier GR3s arrived for the Task Force on 5 May, and three remained at Ascension until Phantom interceptors eventually replaced them. That same day, the British installed a radar system on top of Green Mountain, using a Chinook helicopter disembarked from Atlantic Conveyor. They then announced a 200–mile ‘terminal control area’ around Ascension and required prior notification of all flights into the area.

The majority of Task Force marines and soldiers not involved in the re–stow engaged in training both afloat and ashore. Troops needed to zero weapons and armoured vehicles. The BFSU, with assistance from the manager of Pan American, set up several training areas for use, to include a live–fire range for armoured vehicles. Commanders made the most of the time available. Troops were ferried ashore to English Bay by helicopter or landing craft and practised assaults. They conditioned themselves by marching the six miles to ranges to zero their weapons and then back to English Bay. Training ashore provided a premonition of likely ammunition expenditure rates. For example, 45 Commando fired a nine–year allocation of MILAN anti–tank training ammunition at Ascension in a single day.

Rehearsing procedures for disembarking transport ships into amphibious landing craft was also an important unit training priority. STUFT vessels posed particular concern. These ships lacked the internal communication systems found on amphibious ships to facilitate such operations. Units therefore needed to practise getting off the ships into landing craft quickly and safely. If they did not, then any amphibious assault could degenerate into a disorganized struggle to get ashore and would almost certainly jeopardize the success of the operation. Some Royal Marines had trained in similar procedures, but disembarking from STUFT would be new for all of them. Amphibious operations would be a completely different experience for paratroopers, though, since their skill was in jumping out of airplanes on to battlefields. They did not train to disembark ships to assault beaches. Consequently, everyone needed some degree of training, and so they practised disembarking into landing craft when ships were stationary and also when they were moving. Landing craft and helicopter availability constrained the time available since these movement assets were stretched already in the re–stow operation. Logistics requirements retained priority. Thompson allocated each battalion/commando one day and one night for landing craft rehearsals.

As logisticians were just starting to shuffle around supplies, Admiral Fieldhouse and Major General Moore arrived at Wideawake for a series of briefings as planned on 17 April aboard Hermes. Over a hundred commanders and staff crowded into a small briefing room on the carrier, where briefers shared assessments of the situation. Fieldhouse listened carefully to Woodward’s concerns about timing and the eventual maintenance needs of ships. They assumed the two carriers would stay operational until mid–June and agreed on the need to liberate Stanley before then. They decided that the amphibious assault must take place by the third week in May and that special forces would land in the Falklands by 1 May to allow sufficient time to gather intelligence. The group concluded that the Carrier Battle Group should proceed south immediately to enforce the TEZ blockade and insert those special forces. Fieldhouse ruled out an amphibious landing at any place other than East Falkland. The exact location of the landing on East Falkland, however, remained unspecified. All agreed that Clapp and Thompson would continue evaluating options for landing areas and that special forces would provide intelligence regarding locations under consideration. By the end of the meeting, Fieldhouse stated categorically, for the first time, that Woodward’s Carrier Battle Group would win the air and sea battles before any amphibious landing took place. Few, however, believed that would be possible. The Amphibious Task Force would remain at Ascension for the time being to carry out its re–stow of supplies and equipment.

The meeting produced several important decisions with implications for Task Force logistics. Fieldhouse agreed that 3 Commando Brigade needed reinforcement by another parachute battalion, an additional battery of 105mm light artillery guns, more engineers, medics, Blowpipes for air defence and light helicopters. Most of these reinforcements were, in fact, already being mobilized. This would bring the strength of the Land Force to about 5,500 men spread over five battalion–sized units with twenty–four 105mm light guns, eight tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles, a battery of Rapier surface–to–air missiles and fifteen light helicopters. Moreover, the assembly concluded that another brigade was required to increase overall ground combat strength, since 3 Commando Brigade, even when reinforced with a second parachute regiment, remained only half the size of the 10,000–strong Argentine force anticipated in the Falklands. The British Army’s 5 Infantry Brigade would become that additional force. Previously known as 8th Field Force until it was renamed in January 1982, it was quite different from 3 Commando Brigade. Until its redesignation, the brigade had been a mixture of Regular Army and Territorial Army units, with a primary focus on homeland defence and secondary focus on out–of–area contingencies. It was a new formation that had not trained together before. Two of its famous units, the parachute battalions, were now deploying as attachments to the more prestigious 3 Commando Brigade.

Aboard Hermes, Thompson specifically requested more load–carrying transportation to support his brigade. There being no other aircraft carriers remaining, the MoD agreed shortly thereafter to requisition the container ship Atlantic Conveyor and convert her into a platform for heavy–lift helicopters and other aircraft. Atlantic Conveyor would be modified and sail loaded from England eight days after the meeting aboard Hermes. Intrepid, the second Landing Platform Dock, would join the Amphibious Task Force as well. Hellberg and Baxter huddled separately with Major General Moore at Ascension to work on logistics issues. They agreed that the current thirty days’ supply of ammunition at Limited War Rates was insufficient. Estimates indicated that, at intense rates of fire, artillery and mortar ammunition supplies would not last a week. As a result, Baxter arranged for another thirty days of this ammunition, including 30mm armour–piercing rounds for the Scimitar light tanks and variable time fuses for artillery shells. Variable time fuses were not included in the artillery regiment’s first line issue of ammunition. These fuses, whose settings enabled artillery shells to explode above ground level, would be much more effective in the open, peat–covered terrain common throughout much of the Falklands. So Baxter got more fuses from the British Army of the Rhine in Germany.

The meeting aboard Hermes cut to the quick of some important issues, but it nevertheless left Brigadier Thompson and Commodore Clapp a little frustrated. Thompson had hoped for more specifics about what was expected. Although it was agreed that the earliest possible landing date would be 14/15 May, his mission remained vague. Where he was to land and with what objectives in mind would dramatically influence logistics requirements and the time needed to get a sustainment base ashore on East Falkland. They had to continue configuring supplies for battle largely by guesswork.

On 18 April, the day after the meeting with Fieldhouse, the Carrier Battle Group headed south. Ten days later, Task Force commanders finally received a little more guidance. It reflected the objective that Chief of Defence Staff Lewin had proposed to the War Cabinet weeks before, to avoid war by ‘bringing about the withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands and dependencies, and the re–establishment of British administration there, as quickly as possible’. Included in the guidance were requirements for Woodward to cut off supplies to the Argentines, discredit their claim to sovereignty, provoke their naval and air forces into action, and to control the sea and air for a main landing; and for Clapp to establish a beachhead close enough to exert military and psychological pressure on the main Argentine force in the Port Stanley area. The guidance expressed the hope that such actions ‘may be enough to convince the Argentines that their own position is militarily untenable and that they can honourably agree to withdraw….’ The new information probably produced more confusion than clarity. It certainly did little to help Thompson, Clapp and their logisticians assess how to configure forces and supplies for an amphibious assault. It remained clear that Thatcher and her War Cabinet were still hoping to avoid war. Until circumstances changed that perspective, guidance for planning a ground war would remain vague.

By the end of April, the re–stow operation and other tasks were nearing completion. Clapp had arranged for some experts to assess the underwater signatures of ships to reduce the risk of magnetic mines, and for others to train ship crews on damage control and repair. Royal Navy engineers had installed 40mm anti–aircraft guns on the LSLs to provide some protection against air attack and repaired the reverse–osmosis fresh water generators installed in Uganda at Gibraltar. Moore few back to Ascension Island on 29 April to update Thompson and Clapp on decisions in London. All but three of the nineteen beaches considered for amphibious landings had been eliminated. Those remaining were the ones Clapp and Thompson had been studying: Cow Bay/Volunteer Bay, Berkeley Sound, and San Carlos Bay. When Moore returned to London, he took with him an outline of operations orders for each of the three options. On 30 April, Thompson gathered his commanders together and, in strictest confidence, shared with them details of planning up until then. Many decisions still would be forthcoming, but one thing seemed sure. It started to look for the first time as if they really were going to war. The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Hellberg and the bulk of his Commando Logistic Regiment weighed anchors and headed south in their slower LSLs. The rest of the Amphibious Task Force would catch up with them before reaching the Falklands.

The other manoeuvre battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, proudly known as 2 Para, arrived aboard the ferry Norland on the morning of 7 May. Thompson urgently requested a little more time so that 2 Para also could practise disembarking into landing craft from Norland. He was granted just a few more hours before the War Cabinet in London ordered the Amphibious Task Force south. The Group sailed at 2200 hrs that evening. Somewhere out in the South Atlantic, hundreds of miles ahead, the five slower LSLs were already steaming. Few members of the Task Force now doubted they would see some action. Too much had happened since they arrived at Ascension three weeks before. Still more was to happen in the days ahead that would make war even more likely.