The first great strategic debate to face the war cabinet concerned operations against South Georgia. The island was 800 miles beyond the primary objective – 800 miles of hostile sea and danger from submarines. It was largely irrelevant to the recapture of the Falklands, and would probably be surrendered automatically once the major Argentine positions had been taken. It seemed a major diversion of effort to dispatch Thompson’s entire brigade to South Georgia, whatever the attractions for the marines of a rehearsal for greater things to come. Conversely, the use of only the small force embarked aboard Antrim and Plymouth seemed too risky. It would be a devastating beginning to British operations in the South Atlantic to suffer any kind of failure against such an objective. Virtually the entire navy staff, including Leach and Fieldhouse, advised against it.
The decision to press ahead against South Georgia, like so many others of the campaign, was primarily political. The British public was becoming restless for action, more than two weeks after the task force had sailed. Buenos Aires remained intransigent. Questions were even being asked in Washington about Britain’s real will for a showdown. The former head of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner, suggested on television that Britain could face a defeat. British diplomacy needed the bite of military action to sharpen its credibility. To the politicians in the war cabinet, South Georgia seemed to offer the promise of substantial rewards for modest stakes. The Antrim group was ordered to proceed to its recapture.
The detached squadron led by Captain Brian Young in Antrim rendezvoused with Endurance 1,000 miles north of South Georgia on 14 April. The British believed that the Argentinians had placed only a small garrison on the bleak, glacier-encrusted island. The submarine Conqueror, which left Faslane on 4 April, had sailed direct to the island to carry out reconnaissance for the Antrim group. She slipped cautiously inshore, conscious that an iceberg 35 by 15 miles wide and 500 feet high had been reported in the area. Her captain reported no evidence of an Argentine naval presence. The submarine then moved away north-westwards to patrol in a position from which she could intervene either in the maritime exclusion zone, or in support of the South Georgia operation, or against the Argentine carrier, if she emerged. A fifteen-hour sortie by an RAF Victor aircraft confirmed Conqueror’s report that the approach to South Georgia was clear.
On 21 April, Young’s ships saw their first icebergs, and reduced speed for their approach to the island, in very bad weather. The captain summoned the marine and SAS officers to his bridge to see for themselves the ghastly sea conditions. The ship’s Wessex helicopters nonetheless took off into a snowstorm carrying the Mountain Troop of D Squadron, SAS, under the command of twenty-nine-year-old Captain John Hamilton. Antrim had already flown aboard a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey team which successfully remained out of reach of the Argentinians through the three weeks of their occupation of South Georgia. This man strongly urged against the proposed SAS landing site, high on the Fortuna Glacier, where the weather defied human reason. Lieutenant Bob Veal, a naval officer with great experience of the terrain, took the same view. But another expert in England very familiar with South Georgia, Colonel John Peacock, believed that the Fortuna was passable, and his advice was transmitted to Antrim. The SAS admits no limits to what determined men can achieve. After one failed attempt in which the snow forced the helicopters back to the ships, Hamilton and his men were set down with their huge loads of equipment to reconnoitre the island for the main assault landing by the Royal Marines. One SAS patrol was to operate around Stromness and Husvik; one was to proceed overland towards Leith; the third was to examine a possible beach-landing site in Fortuna Bay.
From the moment that they descended into the howling gale and snowclad misery of the glacier, the SAS found themselves confounded by the elements. ‘Spindrift blocked the feed trays of the machine guns,’ wrote an NCO in his report. ‘On the first afternoon, three corporals probing crevasses advanced 500 metres in four to five hours . . .’ Their efforts to drag their sledges laden with 200 pounds of equipment apiece were frustrated by whiteouts that made all movement impossible. ‘Luckily we were now close to an outcrop in the glacier, and were able to get into a crevasse out of the main blast of the wind . . .’ They began to erect their tents. One was instantly torn from their hands by the wind, and swept away into the snow. The poles of the others snapped within seconds, but the men struggled beneath the fabric and kept it upright by flattening themselves against the walls. Every forty-five minutes, they took turns to crawl out and dig the snow away from the entrance, to avoid becoming totally buried. They were now facing katabatic winds of more than 100 m.p.h. By 11 a.m. the next morning, the 22nd, their physical condition was deteriorating rapidly. The SAS were obliged to report that their position was untenable, and ask to be withdrawn.
The first Wessex V to make an approach was suddenly hit by a whiteout. Its pilot lost all his horizons, fell out of the sky, attempted to pull up just short of the ground and smashed his tail rotor in the snow. The helicopter rolled over and lay wrecked. A second Wessex V came in. With great difficulty, the crew of the crashed aircraft and all the SAS were embarked, at the cost of abandoning their equipment. Within seconds of takeoff, another whiteout struck the Wessex. This too crashed on to the glacier.
It was now about 3 p.m. in London. Francis Pym was boarding Concorde to fly to Washington with a new British response to Haig’s peace proposals. Lewin, anxiously awaiting news of the services’ first major operation of the Falklands campaign, received a signal from Antrim. The reconnaissance party ashore was in serious difficulty. Two helicopters sent to rescue them had crashed, with unknown casualties. For the Chief of Defence Staff, it was one of the bleakest moments of the war. After all his efforts to imbue the war cabinet with full confidence in the judgement of the service chiefs, he was now compelled to cross Whitehall and report on the situation to the Prime Minister. It was an unhappy afternoon in Downing Street.
But an hour later, Lewin received news of a miracle. In a brilliant feat of flying for which he later received a DSO, Lieutenant Commander Ian Stanley had brought another helicopter, a Wessex III, down on the Fortuna Glacier. He found that every man from the crashed helicopters had survived. Grossly overloaded with seventeen bodies, he piloted the Wessex back to Antrim and threw it on to the pitching deck. His exhausted and desperately cold passengers were taken below to the wardroom and the emergency medical room.
A disaster had been averted by the narrowest of margins. Yet the reconnaissance mission was no further forward. Soon after midnight the following night, 23 April, they started again. 2 Section SBS landed successfully by helicopter at the north end of Sorling Valley. Meanwhile, fifteen men of D Squadron’s Boat Troop set out in five Gemini inflatable craft for Grass Island, within sight of the Argentine bases. For years, the SAS had been vainly demanding more reliable replacements for the 40 h.p. outboards with which the Geminis were powered. Now, one craft suffered almost immediate engine failure and whirled away with the gale into the night, with three men helpless aboard. A second suffered the same fate. Its crew drifted in the South Atlantic throughout the hours of darkness before its beacon signal was picked up the next morning by a Wessex. The crew was recovered. The remaining three boats, roped together, reached their landfall on Grass Island but, by early afternoon, they were compelled to report that ice splinters dashed into their craft by the tearing gale were puncturing the inflation cells. The SBS party in Sorling Valley was unable to move across the terrain, and had to be recovered by helicopter and reinserted in Moraine Fjord the following day. All these operations provided circumstantial evidence that the Argentine garrison ashore was small. But they were an inauspicious beginning to a war, redeemed only by the incredible good fortune that the British had survived a chapter of accidents with what at this stage seemed the loss of only one Gemini.
On 24 April, the squadron received more bad news: an enemy submarine was believed to be in the area. The British already knew that Argentine C-130 transport aircraft had been overflying the island, and had to assume that the British presence was now revealed. Captain Young dispersed his ships, withdrawing the RFA tanker Tidespring carrying M Company of 42 Commando some 200 miles northwards. It seemed likely to be some days before proper reconnaissance could be completed, and any sort of major assault mounted. Above all, nothing significant could be done until more helicopters arrived. That night, the Type 22 frigate Brilliant joined up with Antrim after steaming all out through mountainous seas from her holding position with the Type 42s. She brought with her two Lynx helicopters. Captain Young and his force once again moved inshore, to land further SAS and SBS parties. British luck now took a dramatic turn for the better.
Early on the morning of 25 April, Antrim’s Wessex III picked up an unidentified radar contact close to the main Argentine base at Grytviken. Endurance and Plymouth at once launched their Wasps. The three helicopters sighted the Argentine Guppy class submarine Santa Fe heading out of Cumberland Bay, and attacked with depth charges and torpedoes. Plymouth’s Wasp fired an AS 12 missile, which passed through the submarine’s conning tower, while Brilliant’s Lynx closed in firing GP machine-guns. It may seem astonishing that, after so much expensive British hardware had been unleashed, the Santa Fe remained afloat at all. It was severely damaged, and turned back at once towards Grytviken, where it had been landing reinforcements for the garrison, now totalling 140 men. There, the submarine beached herself alongside the British Antarctic Survey base. Her crew scuttled hastily ashore in search of safety.
There was now a rapid conference aboard Antrim, and urgent consultation with London. The main body of Royal Marines was still 200 miles away. But it was obvious that the enemy ashore had been thrown into disarray. Captain Young, Major Sheridan of the marines and Major Cedric Delves, commanding D Squadron, determined to press home their advantage. A composite company was formed from every available man aboard Antrim – marines, SAS, SBS – seventy-five in all. In the cramped mess-decks of the destroyer, they hastily armed and equipped themselves. Early in the afternoon, directed by a naval gunfire support officer in a Wasp, the ships laid down a devastating bombardment around the reported Argentine positions. At 2.45, under Major Sheridan’s overall command, the first British elements landed by helicopter and began closing in on Grytviken. There was a moment of farce when they saw in their path a group of balaclava-clad heads on the skyline, engaged them with machine-gun fire and Milan missiles, and found themselves overrunning a group of elephant seals. Then they were above the settlement, where white sheets were already fluttering from several windows.
As the SAS led the way towards the buildings, a bewildered Argentine officer complained, ‘You have just walked through my minefield!’ SAS Sergeant Major Lofty Gallagher ran up the Union Jack that he had brought with him. At 5.15 local time, the Argentine garrison commander, Captain Alfredo Astiz, formally surrendered. He was an embarrassing prisoner of war, as he was wanted for questioning by several nations in connection with the disappearance of their citizens while in government custody on the Argentine mainland some years earlier. Britain was eventually to return him to Buenos Aires, uninterrogated. Somewhat reluctantly, the fastidious Royal Navy began to embark a long column of filthy, malodorous and dejected prisoners aboard the ships. The following morning, after threatening defiance by radio overnight, the small enemy garrison at Leith, along the coast, surrendered without resistance. The scrap merchants whose activities had precipitated the entire drama were also taken into custody, for repatriation to the mainland.
The British triumph became complete when a helicopter picked up a weak emergency-beacon signal from the extremity of Stromness Bay. A helicopter was sent, managed to home on it, and recovered the lost three-man SAS patrol whose Gemini had been swept away in the early hours of 23 April. They had paddled ashore with only a few hundred yards of land left between them and the Atlantic. Thus, with a last small miracle, the British completed the recapture of South Georgia, the first operation of the Falklands campaign, without a single man lost. One Argentine sailor had been badly wounded and one was killed the following day in an accident.
The news of the operation was immediately relayed back to London. A sense of relief turned to euphoria. Two days earlier, Mrs Thatcher had personally visited Northwood to be briefed by Field-house and his staff and to endure with them the agonised suspense of the SAS and SBS debacles. Her constant supportive remarks to the fleet staff made a deep impression. The simplicity of her objectives and her total determination to see them achieved came as a welcome change to men used to regarding politicians as hedgers and doubters.
Sunday’s news was greeted by the public as a triumph long expected and not a little overdue. The British people had, after all, been led to believe that the task force was irresistible. As a result, when Mrs Thatcher joined John Nott on the steps of Downing Street and called to waiting pressmen, ‘Rejoice, just rejoice!’ it seemed a curiously hard and inappropriate heralding of the onset of war. Yet it was the reaction of a woman overwhelmed with relief. The first stage of her gamble had only narrowly been rescued from catastrophe.
The euphoria was not confined to London. On 26 April, aboard his flagship Hermes, Admiral Woodward gave a rare interview to a task-force correspondent, in which he declared robustly, ‘South Georgia was the appetiser. Now this is the heavy punch coming up behind. My battle group is properly formed and ready to strike. This is the run-up to the big match which, in my view, should be a walkover.’ The British were told, he said, that the Argentinians in South Georgia were ‘a tough lot. But they were quick to throw in the towel. We will isolate the troops on the Falklands as those on South Georgia were isolated.’ Woodward subsequently denied much of the substance of that interview as reported in the British press. But, to many of his officers, it had the authentic flavour of the admiral, anxious to inspire the greatest possible confidence in what his task force could do.