What was it like for British troops involved in the seaborne landings to retake the Falklands Islands? John Beales, an AHRC funded PhD researcher at Keele University and IWM, shares some of his research.

 

In the early hours of the morning of 21 May 1982 British troops from 3 Commando Brigade were loaded into landing craft and made their way to the shoreline around San Carlos Water in East Falkland Island.

The land campaign to eject Argentinian forces from the British Overseas Territory was underway.

Just like ‘D-Day’ in Normandy in 1944, the troops were to land at several locations. Unlike Normandy, they faced little opposition.

For many it was a surreal experience, and for some it initially appeared to be just another exercise.

(© IWM FKD 1200 The landing zones of 3 Commando Brigade around San Carlos Water on 21 May 1982.)

The location had been chosen for the modicum of shelter that the surrounding hills provided against observation and air attack. A small Argentinian unit based on Fanning Head, the land mass that dominated the entrance to San Carlos, was bombarded by HMS Glamorgan after it refused to surrender to members of the Special Boat Squadron.

Crucially, a diversionary attack on the Goose Green airstrip by the SAS and Naval Gunfire Support by HMS Ardent prevented Argentinian ground attack aircraft from taking off.

Had this not been successful the British forces could have been attacked when they were most vulnerable - in the landing craft, and on the shoreline and lower slopes of the surrounding hills before they could establish defensive positions.

This mission was particularly important as the landing schedule had slipped and, despite plans to land all forces under the cover of darkness, most landed in daylight.

(3 Battalion, Parachute Regiment disembark from a landing craft during the landings at San Carlos. © Graham Colbeck (IWM FKD 2744))

While Royal Marines were used to landing craft army units were not, and although they had practiced entering landing craft at Ascension Island, it had not included night-time practice. ‘Chaos’ and delays inevitably ensued, notably when a member of 2 Para fell between a landing craft and a ship and fractured his pelvis.[1]

In the end the only other injury came from a negligent discharge of a weapon.[2] But the troops weren’t to know that. There were only 12 landing craft available so there would be no mass assault like those represented in the iconic images of the Second World War landings that clearly framed expectations of what might happen if their landing on the islands was opposed.[3]

Gary Platts recalled that once his landing craft had begun to move, ‘Some lads were seasick, some were sick’ [with fear]: the boarding of the craft had been filmed and he had seen the footage since, noting their ‘grey, drawn faces. All scared…more than one lad wet himself’.[4] Platts recalled that, ‘We thought we were doing Omaha beach…and I didn’t relish that prospect’.[5]

John Glaze remembered that 'We didn't know what to expect. I had this vision of carnage - going across the beaches of Dieppe or somewhere - where there'd be bodies strewn everywhere…'.[6] However, they were to get ashore without further incident.

 

(© IWM FKD 177 Royal Marines ready to board a landing craft.)

Going ashore carrying excessive loads was common to all troops, with one recalling that struggling uphill a load of 140lbs ‘was like having a bloke on your back’.[7]

When air raid warnings were received many were reluctant to take cover because it was so difficult to get up again.[8]

(© IWM FKD 856 A heavily laden paratrooper of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment heads south for Sussex Mountain on 21 May 1982.)

As they moved inland from Green Beach elements of 3 Para clashed with a small body of Argentinian troops: they sustained no casualties, but two British Gazelle helicopters were shot down and three crew killed.

These were the only British fatalities onshore on 21 May, but at sea the death toll quickly rose due to Argentinian air attacks: HMS Ardent was repeatedly attacked in Falkland Sound and 22 of her crew were killed, while on HMS Argonaut two were killed.

HMS Brilliant, HMS Broadsword and HMS Antrim also suffered bomb damage on the first day.

(© IWM FKD 139 Close up showing the stern of HMS ARDENT on fire after being attacked)

As they dug-in on the hills, British troops had a clear view of the air attacks on British ships. For many there was a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Despite later assertions of their confidence in a British victory, observing the repeated hits on British ships left some doubting they would win: for some there was a fear it would be another Dunkirk. The troop-carrying Canberra, nicknamed ‘the Great White Whale’, came under attack whilst still holding the Brigade reserve force and functioning as the only medical facility in support of the British landings.

The ship was consequently moved out of Port San Carlos that first night and a Surgical team was hurriedly moved ashore and set up in an abandoned building. Information on the ground was scarce, and Gary Platts recalled that, ‘For the first few days, because we didn’t have any intelligence, we did have visions of Argentinian hordes coming over the horizon like “Zulu’”.[9]

Argentinian troops didn’t appear, but their aircraft frequently did, and troops on the hills joined in with the fusillade of fire directed at them by British ships.

However, for Major Akhurst it was hard to ‘suppress the feeling that it was just a most effectively controlled live firing demonstration’.[10]

For Gary Platts, ‘It was a spectacle rather than an experience’, as the Argentinian pilots focused on attacking the warships, not the ground troops.[11]

As a consequence, Platts and his comrades became ‘blasé’ about the air threat. That was until they came under direct attack themselves, an experience that produced a surge of adrenaline that resulted in a profound sensory enhancement.

‘It was like everyone had been given amphetamines. Everyone’s eyes were as big as saucer’s and nobody’s hands could stop shaking…then we thought, “Brilliant, we got away with it…”’.[12]

But then he and his colleagues heard that a fellow Commando Engineer had been killed by a bomb. Viewing the body, before it was wrapped in ‘bivvy bags’ and buried without a Chaplain being present, he recalled the effect of the blast,

‘He appeared to be a bag of skin with a load of broken bones in it… You don’t look particularly human. You break your cheekbones, your skulls fractured and your jaw…it doesn’t look the shape it ought’.[13]

Already aware that conditions were going to be tough, his colleagues divided the dead man’s Arctic rations and spare socks amongst them.

‘It felt really odd looking through a dead man’s kit, but we did’.[14] 

Whilst some troops recalled that they had felt a sense of detachment from what they were witnessing when they first went ashore, this was now evidently not an exercise.

More about the Falklands Conflict.

 

References

[1] IWM, Sound 20255, Adrian Robert Freer, Reel 1.

[2] IWM, Sound 13419, David Cooper, Reel 2.

[3] IWM, Documents 15782, ‘Report by Major M J Norman Royal Marines describing the formation and deployment of Juliet Company 42 Commando Royal Marines May-June 1982’, 10 July 1982, Annex E, ‘Report by Marines Cook and Deveney’, p.1. There were x8 LCU’s (Landing Craft Utility) and x4, smaller, LCVP’s (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel).

[4] IWM, Sound 32212, Gary Platts, Reel 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] IWM, Sound 30108, Sergeant John Glaze, Reel 5.

[7] IWM, Sound 32212, Gary Platts, Reel 12.

[8] IWM, Sound 17143, Sergeant John Meredith, Reel 1.

[9] IWM, Sound 32212, Gary Platts, Reel 15.

[10] IWM, Documents 20722, Private papers of G. R. Akhurst MBE [7 (Sphinx) Commando Battery, Royal Artillery], 'The Falklands War: An account by Major G.R. Akhurst MBE RA', p.45.

[11] IWM, Sound 32212, Gary Platts, Reel 13.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] IWM, Sound 32212, Gary Platts, Reel 14.