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If there is one, stand-out moment that captures the British experience of the Falklands conflict, it is the loss of Sir Galahad and the horrendous casualties suffered by the Welsh Guards. But why did this come to pass? Several causes have been discussed over the years, including the lack of joint awareness by the embarked forces, missing air cover, and the paucity of communication between formation and component commanders. In truth, all elements are seen in the disaster, but one underlying cause stands out: the reliance on ad-hoc measures in an operation requiring deep specialist knowledge, skills and attitudes.
As in previous articles, I will situate the events in the context of the rich seam of historical strategic insight. Firstly, Callwell stressed the requirement for thinking and behaving jointly in peacetime as prelude and preparation for wartime employment: ‘if there is to be perfect harmony in war between the navy and the army, there must be mutual confidence in peace and mutual understanding of respective functions’.1For Corbett, ‘the naval and military staffs must work like the lobes of one brain, each self-contained and instinct with its own life and law, and yet inseparable from the other; neither moving except by joint and unified impulse’.2That ‘impulse’ needed to be imbued from the top; Molyneux was at pains to situate amphibious operations in the lexicon of national interest and grand strategy.3So too Corbett,4viewing ‘the army and navy [as] the blade and hilt of one weapon’.5Callwell was clear in his appreciation of the challenge facing joint forces, stating that the
… soldiers of a great maritime empire, the territories of which are scattered all over the globe, must understand the broad principles of the art of naval war ere they can appreciate the problems of its defence. The personnel of a navy that may have to shepherd armies over the seas in time of danger, to set them ashore, and to minister to their wants when ashore, will not perform its duties the less effectively if it realises the difficulties, the limitations, and the purposes of operations on land.6
Irrespective of whether Britain in 1982, or today, is a ‘great maritime empire’, the challenge still remains. Britain is a collection of islands with interests overseas. Defending those interests requires expeditionary power projection, and in turn joint awareness, understanding and practice. That awareness, understanding and practice was conspicuously lacking in 1982, resulting in a chain of command that was, at its worst, fractious, and resulted in an entirely avoidable tragedy at Bluff Cove and Fitzroy.
The disaster at Fitzroy represents the clearest example of paucity of joint thinking, awareness and practice. Observed in the interactions between HQ 5 Infantry Brigade and the rest of the Amphibious and Land Forces components, this was the result of several congruent factors, not least the character of Brigadier Wilson and the ad hoc nature of his command. It had been recognised that 3Cdo alone could not concentrate sufficient mass to conduct a land campaign against a garrison that outnumbered it by a factor of 2:1. Thus, a second brigade, at minimum, was required. The Army chose 5 Infantry Brigade, and many have questioned why. Whilst ostensibly the Army’s out-of-area formation, 5 Bde was newly formed; its units were as unfamiliar to each other as to the type of operation now being asked of it, and had only recently partaken in a hastily organised, and poorly executed, exercise in the Welsh mountains. Its commander was relatively untested at this level, and the brigade was stripped of its two high-readiness Parachute battalions to reinforce 3 Commando Brigade. The replacements (1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, 2nd Battalion The Scots Guards) were fresh from Public Duties. Only 1st Battalion 7th (Duke of Edinburgh’s Own) Gurkha Rifles were current in light role manoeuvre. Furthermore, in hastily mobilising for war, 5 Bde lacked an established logistic regiment and infrastructure; it was to become totally reliant on the Cdo Logistic Regiment (CLR) under Lt Col Ivar Hellberg, an additional burden that CLR was woefully undermanned to take on. The brigade was neither joint nor prepared; neither its command nor personnel had ever conducted amphibious warfare training or joint manoeuvres with the Royal Navy and were completely unaware and ignorant of the intricacies of acting within a contested, and congested, littoral battlespace. Whilst the same could be said of 2 and 3 PARA, the addition of those units to 3Cdo Bde directly under Brigadier Thompson’s HQ negated many of these issues in the early stages. Where fractures once again appeared was in the unauthorised push forward of 2 PARA from Goose Green/Darwin to Bluff Cove and Fitzroy by Brigadier Wilson, a move that instigated the chain of events leading up to the loss of RFA Sir Galahad at Fitzroy and the blue-on-blue loss of a 5 Bde Gazelle helicopter, complete with the Bde’s Signals Officer.
This loss bears particular scrutiny, as it appears to be the result of several miscommunications between the components. First, neither the Land commander (by this point, Major General Jeremy Moore) nor CATF had any idea that 2PARA was bounding forward on the southern flank, and thus was not able to coordinate that move with the available assets. Second, in the scramble to get forward, 5 Inf Bde signals infrastructure was compromised7, and thus there was a requirement to set up a new relay. It was on this task that the gazelle had been dispatched, but without alerting any of the other units in the area. Similarly, HMS Cardiff was loitering directly under the aircraft’s flightpath, setting up an ambush for any Argentine resupply flights. Just as nobody informed the Navy of the gazelle’s intended flightpath and destination, the Navy did not inform the army of the presence of an air-defence destroyer in the locality. The resultant engagement and destruction of the helicopter was thus entirely avoidable.
In the event, Wilson’s seizure of the initiative to open a second line of advance was correct, and entirely in accordance with Corbett’s view of the great advantage of amphibious operations: ‘the sudden shift of base or line of operation’. Unfortunately, it was a unilateral decision that stretched already scarce resource beyond breaking point. The problems faced by 5 Inf Bde were not unique to that formation; many of the other units involved in the campaign had similar issues. Where the confluence of events came to a head was in the unpreparedness of the brigade, from top to bottom, for joint operations: they were a victim of the “ad hoccery” that saw them bundled out the door.8 Unfortunately, the Welsh Guards in particular suffered as a result, and the army as a whole were perhaps unfairly critiqued for not realising that “amphibious operations are not fighting tank battles on the north European plain”.9 That the brigade was able to take part in the assault on the mountains overlooking Stanley is entirely to their credit; Mount Tumbledown was truly a baptism of fire for troops fresh from Public Duties. The lesson here is that formations and units earmarked for expeditionary operations should be well-versed in the challenges of command, control and execution, and should have a thorough understanding of the domains in which they are operating, including the threat posed by enemy action. It was an understanding wholly absent in 1982.
- Callwell, Charles E. Military Operations and Maritime Preponderance (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1905): 21-22.
- Corbett, Op cit (1907) Vol I: 218-219.
- Young, Op cit (2020): 54.
- Lambert, Andrew. The British Way of War (London: Yale University Press, 2021): 185-186.
- Corbett, Op cit (1907) Vol I: 8.
- Callwell, Op cit: 21.
- 2PARA, at Wilson’s instruction, had hijacked the sole chinook which had been tasked with taking 5 Bde signals squadron to Darwin.
- Bolia, Robert S. “The Bluff Cove Disaster.” Military Review 84 (2004): 66-72.
- Unnamed Royal Marines officer, quoted in Watling, Jack & Kaushal, Sidharth. “Amphibious Assault is Over” RUSI Defence Systems, 21 (21 January 2019): https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/rusi-defence-systems/amphibious-assault-over. This is, in the author’s opinion, a rather facetious statement. Whilst the army have been expected to undertake amphibious operations on numerous occasions, the Royal Marines have never been asked to reciprocate by conducting combined arms, armoured manoeuvre in north-western Europe. Berating troops for failure in an operation that they are unprepared for only demonstrates the commentator’s sloppy thinking.