At 0400 Local on 1st May 1982, the population under curfew of a now filthy and stinking Port Stanley, were roused from their beds by the visceral thumps of just over nine tons of high explosives from the direction of the town’s airport. After the explosions came the roar of four Olympus turbojet engines, that shook the Capital’s wooden buildings and random gunfire was heard all over the town and surrounding area. To the occupied citizens of Port Stanley it meant one thing. The war to free them and oust the Argentine invaders had begun. To the Royal Air Force it was the culmination of an incredibly complex engineering and logistics plan. Thirteen Victor tanker aircraft had flown south with two Vulcan bombers, to attack the airfield at Port Stanley. To the aeronautical experts it meant that an aircraft designed in the 1940s, which had first entered service in 1956 and was due to be retired, had just carried out the longest bombing raid in history to that date.
Despite the ongoing diplomatic talks brokered by the Americans, it was important that the British were seen to be resolute in providing a military response to back up diplomacy. Very few within the British War Cabinet were hopeful that diplomatic talks in the United Nations would remove the Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands, so as well as talking softly, there was a requirement to wield a big stick. It seemed as though the recapture of South Georgia would send a suitable message to the Argentine leadership, and prove to the military Junta that the Task Force sailing south meant business.
Admiral John Fieldhouse in Northwood Headquarters and staff officers from 3 Commando Brigade planned the operation, which would involve elements of 42 Commando, having recently completed Arctic warfare training in Norway. Major Guy Sheridan, an experienced mountaineer would lead the operation and M Company plus medical and support staff would provide the bayonet strength of 132 men. Sheridan requested support from the Royal Marines’ Arctic and Mountain Warfare Cadre, but instead was given support from 19 (Mountain) Troop from D Squadron Special Air Service (SAS) then based on Ascension Island. As it happened the whole of D Squadron comprising not only the Mountain Troop, but also 16 (Mobility) Troop, 18 (Air) Troop and 17 (Boat) Troop along with the Squadron HQ all joined the force at Ascension. Finally, 2 Troop, Special Boat Squadron (2 SBS) and, as requested by Sheridan, two Naval Gunfire Forward Observation Parties (NGFOs) also joined the task group.
The assault teams were distributed among the ships of Task Force 317, which sailed from Ascension on 11th April 1982. The ships were the Frigate HMS Plymouth, The Destroyer HMS Antrim, the Tanker RFA Tidespring the submarine SSN Conqueror, which also carried the team from the SBS. The task force rendezvoused with HMS Endurance on 14th April, while the Conqueror raced ahead silently and submerged.
The submarine arrived off South Georgia on 17th April and set about its patrol and information gathering. The Conqueror was to prevent any ships from reinforcing the Argentine garrison, by any means the captain deemed appropriate. The gloves were off. On 20th April a Handley Page Victor tanker aircraft took off from Ascension Island and headed south on a lonely 7,000 mile round trip to South Georgia. Once on station, the aircraft conducted a reconnaissance and confirmed the Conqueror’s report that there were no ships within the vicinity of the island.
The shaming of a Nation
The Governor of the Falkland Islands and dependent territories Rex Hunt, received a telegram from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 1st April 1982. In blunt language it warned of a possible invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Armed Forces of Argentina. It offered the Governor no advice or external help:
We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly.
Hunt summoned the two senior officers of Naval Party 8901 to Government House in Port Stanley, outlined the situation and observed somewhat dryly: “Sounds like the buggers mean it!”
Because of his seniority, Major Mike Norman was given overall command of all defence forces and Major Gary Noott was appointed Military Advisor to Governor Hunt. The Royal Marines Naval Party was larger than normal due to this being a hand-over, take-over or a Relief in Place. Major Norman had under his command fifty-seven marines, eleven RN sailors and around thirty members of the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF), a volunteer force under the command of Captain Phil Summers FIDF. The actual numbers of FIDF is difficult to quantify as differing accounts give differing numbers. I have chosen to quote the median. Twenty-two marines had been dispatched under the command of Lt Mills RM to South Georgia and they were having their own problems to deal with.
Phil Summers tasked the members of the FIDF, which included his son, with guarding key installations such as the telephone exchange, power station and radio station. The civilian coastal ship Forrest operated as an ad-hoc radar warning off Port Stanley. Major Norman concentrated his main force in and around Port Stanley, while smaller units were pushed out to cover the approaches to the capital from the airport isthmus with observation posts overlooking Port William and Port Harriet to the south.
On 19th March 1982, the Argentine Navy’s Fleet Auxiliary the ARA Bahía Buen Suceso sailed into Leith Harbour on the Island of South Georgia and put ashore a party of Argentine scrap metal workers. Once ashore, the workers raised the Argentine flag; the so-called scrap metal workers had been infiltrated by Argentine Marines who were posing as civilian scientists. The reason for the Argentine workers’ landing on South Georgia was a contract between Constantino Davidoff and the British company Christian Salversen, for the scrapping of the abandoned whaling factories and facilities on the island. Aware of the contract, the Argentine Navy used Davidoff’s front to establish a covert base on the disputed territory. The plan was given the code name Operation ALPHA.
The only British personnel at Leith were a small contingent of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) headed up by Trefor Edwards. He handed the captain of the Bahía Buen Suceso a message from London that the Argentine flag was to be struck immediately and demanded that the party should leave the island. They were to report to the main party of the BAS at Grytviken before returning to the Argentine mainland. The scrap metal workers removed the flag but refused to either leave South Georgia or report to the BAS leader in Grytviken. A message was sent to the Governor of the Falkland Isles, Rex Hunt, who consulted with the FCO in London. The Governor was ordered to dispatch HMS Endurance to South Georgia with a detachment of twenty-two Royal Marines, in order to evict the Argentine workers.