The Naval War in the Falklands, Part 7

Part 6, with links to previous parts, is here.

Let’s continue with our look at some of the major events of the Falklands War and their significance.

9 April- SS Canberra, a civilian passenger liner “taken up into service” as a troopship, sails with the first wave of ground forces.

I’ve been referring to the “task force” as a single entity, but in truth, it was actually a series of task groups, each with its own special role. Major elements included the submarines sent as a screen, the two light carriers with their escorts, the underway replenishment group, and the amphibious forces together with their escorts.

The British amphibious forces, while a good deal more robust than the Argentinian, were still too small to carry the large numbers of troops needed. After the initial invasion, the Argentinians had replaced the initial 500 man invasion with a vastly larger garrison composed mostly of conscripted troops, in total, a force of roughly divisional size. We’ll talk more about the shortcomings of this force later, but clearly, a large British landing force would be needed.

As the British didn’t have enough troop lift available via their amphibious shipping, they pressed into service several civilian liners. The British government had subsidized the construction of these ships, with the understanding that when needed, they would be available. This practice was hardly new, and was called “Ships Taken Up from Trade” or STUFTs. Indeed, most US attack transports in World War II had originally been intended as passenger liners, and were pressed into service via a very similar mechanism. But in those days, there existed enough time to modify the transports into actual attack transports, each carrying roughly a battalion of troops, and enough landing craft to land the battalion in one wave. In the case of the SS Canberra, there was no opportunity to perform more than the most modest changes, mostly to cram in as many troops as possible. (Troopships vs. Attack Transports post)

Rather than landing her forces directly ashore, after the amphibs had made their first landings, they would shuttle to the Canberra well offshore, transfer aboard the troops, and make follow up landings. This piecemeal approach to amphibious landings invited the destruction in detail of the previously landed forces, but it was better than nothing. This lengthy process was one reason it was important that the British make their landings well away from the main strength of the Argentinian positions. Any significant counterattack by the Argies would take time, and with a little luck, the Brits would be able to achieve sufficient mass to defeat that counterattack. In the event, the Argies failed to mount a ground counterattack, instead relying on the strength of their positions around Stanley, and the attacks upon British shipping by their air forces. More on that later, of course.

Had the British not had a robust merchant marine to call upon, finding enough shipping to carry the large ground force needed might have been an insurmountable challenge. In addition to troop ships, cargo/container ships were needed to move the vehicles and supplies for the force, and tankers and oilers were needed just to keep the ships at sea fueled.  Lighterage is needed to move equipment ashore from large ships when sufficient wharf size and space is not available.  No nation can long have a strong Navy without a strong merchant marine.

12 April- Britain announces a 200 mile “Total Exclusion Zone” or TEZ around the Falkland Islands.

Even before the first submarine arrived on station, the British gave fair warning that any shipping in an area 200 miles around the Falklands was fair game. British and neutral shipping wisely gave the area a very wide berth.

The announcement was a bit of lawfare, but not an unreasonable one. The British could hardly initiate unrestricted sea and air warfare around the globe, sinking civilian and neutral ships left and right. But denying Argentina sea access to the Falklands, either through ships of their own navy, their own merchant shipping, or via the shipping of a third party nation, was a legitimate course of war. The TEZ was of reasonable size that no legitimate shipping going about its lawful commerce would be unduly inconvenienced in its navigation. By announcing this exclusion zone, the British in effect told everyone that anything in those waters was fair game, and liable to being sunk.

The initial enforcement of the TEZ fell upon the nuclear attack submarines dispatched to the Falklands. On the one hand, trying to track every possible contact in a circle 400 miles across is a big job for just a handful of submarines. On the other hand, if you were a merchant skipper who had no way of detecting a submarine except serving as a target for its torpedoes, the thought of cruising in those waters was less than wholly appealing.

Of course, the British subs that arrived on station had more to do than simply enforce the TEZ. They also had to perform reconnaissance of the waters around the Falklands, gather hydrographic data, gather intelligence on Argentinian shipping outside the TEZ, localize Argentine navy patrol areas,  perform signals intelligence gathering, and eventually land reconnaissance parties ashore. In the event, actually looking for shipping in the TEZ was more of an activity done between “real jobs” than a primary mission.

Incredibly, Argentina failed to take advantage of this. The follow up to the initial invasion shows that Argentina had given little thought to the possibility of a significant military response. Argentina poured thousands of troops into the islands as a garrison, but virtually all of them were flown in by air. But since Argentina was still confronted with the possibility of conflict with Chile, their best light infantry forces, those trained for cold weather operations, were deployed to the border with Chile. The troops actually sent to the Falklands came from more temperate regions. Further, they were motorized and mechanized forces. But since they deployed by aircraft, they came without their armored vehicles. With the exception of a handful of armored cars, and about 100 trucks, the Argentinian forces in the Falklands had no mobility. This also meant they would be fighting without the supporting fire of their armor. The Falklands, large portions of which were little more than peat bogs, might not be ideal armor country, but the lack of firepower and mobility meant the British would have time and space to maneuver against the Argentinian infantry when the time came.

So why didn’t Argentina send in the troops armor? Supporting documentation is tough to find, but I would theorize that because they did not anticipate the British reaction, they had not prepared to defend the islands. Had they planned in advance for a British invasion to retake the islands, they would have made arrangements to requisition merchant shipping to load and transport the mechanized troops equipment to the islands. Stuffing a load of grunts onto a C-130 is logistical child’s play compared to finding the shipping and lighterage to move a mechanized brigade by sea and disembark it in a primitive port. But it could have been done. Indeed, by the 3rd of April, Argentina should have begun to glean that if it wanted to keep the Falklands, it would have to fight for them. And yet, other than some very modest logistical shipping, such as one or two tankers for fuel, little was done. Argentina had more than a week of absolutely uncontested control of the seas, and yet failed to use that time and freedom of navigation to improve their defenses in the Falklands.  Even after the putative announcement of the TEZ, Argentina had the ability to at least attempt seaborne reinforcement, but made no attempts to do so. That shortsightedness would leave the garrison on the Falklands terribly vulnerable. The whole point of maintaining Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) is to communicate- that is, move stuff.

Next, part 8.

4 thoughts on “The Naval War in the Falklands, Part 7”

  1. thanks for this very informative post. I do accept your conclusions about the inadequacy of the argentine preperations. However in fairness to the Argentine leadership the reason that they decided to invade when they did was a false report that the British had sent a submarine from Gibralter to the Falkland islands in response to the escilating tensions. Argentina new that a seaborne invasion would be impossible if a SSN was in the area. Infact they had no way to know that the SSN in question was actually sent else where. The risk of moving any large force by sea was to great given a chance that an SSN was lurking. Under international law the RN would have been totally in the right to enagage any argentine force engaged in hostile actions with no warning and no decleration of a TEZ. Further more the Argentine navy T42’s and almost no ASW capability. Both T42’s escorted the Belgrano while HMS Conquror spent several days right underneath the belgrano waiting for the order to strike clearly showing they had no ability to detect a SSN let alone engage one. With the benfit of hinsight we could say that the Argentine forces had a week to move in heavy units. This would likley have been enough to defeat the British Landing however they had no way to know that they had a week of clear sailing. A single SSN may have been able to destroy the entire force killing thousands of Argentine personel.

    1. The Belgrano was escorted not by the T42s, but rather by old WWII era Gearing/Sumner FRAM destroyers. As I mention in the conclusion, they had virtually no ASW capability against a modern SSN.

      The T42s on the other hand, were with the 25 de Mayo task force. While an SSN threat would still have been very daunting, they were far more capable ASW platforms than the FRAMs. In the event, no SSN gained contact with the 25 de Mayo task group, so we don’t have any real idea of the likelihood of counterdetection.

Comments are closed.