Support Operations at Ascension Island during the Falklands War II

Ascension Island and Britain’s presence in the South Atlantic

The second modification was aimed to give the C–130 air–to–air refuelling capability. Marshall of Cambridge (Engineering) Ltd, which had been designated the technical support centre for the Royal Air Force’s C–130 fleet in 1966, had no previous direct experience in the installation of flight refuelling probes when it received the go–ahead to get involved. Probes for refuelling were then standard items in the Royal Air Force, but none were designed for C–130s. Therefore the British decided to use probes from Vulcan bombers, and the call went out accordingly all over the United Kingdom: ‘If you have a Vulcan please remove the refuelling probe.’ Probes were in such short supply that a maintenance crew took a Concorde shuttle to the United States, changed planes in New York for San Diego and, with permission from the Pentagon, removed the probe from a Vulcan mounted on display there. By 28 April, the first probes had been fitted on some LR 4 models, as day and night training of crews commenced. The third modification was to provide some C–130s with air–refuelling capability themselves. Marshall completed this modification to an LR 4 model as well by 8 June, but this capability was not needed before the end of the war a week later. By then, the other modifications had already enabled the British to maintain continuous air resupply to the Task Force from the sustainment base at Ascension.

Ascension became irreplaceable for maintaining aerial resupply of critical items to Task Force ships moving south to the Falklands. Members of the Royal Corps of Transport’s 47 Air Dispatch Squadron had departed England for Ascension on 5 April aboard Fearless. Their mission was to airdrop small loads to special forces if required. On 19 April, they were joined at Ascension by others from their squadron, and the next day they made their first air drop of high priority supplies to Invincible and Alacrity. The first LR 2 Hercules reached Wideawake on 12 May. On 16 May, in a flight lasting more than 24 hours and covering a total of 6,300 nautical miles, the modified C–130 dropped 1,000lb of supplies to Antelope. By 1 June, 47 Air Dispatch had flown on 47 similar sorties, dropping 163 tons of supplies to the Task Force. The ability of the British to airdrop supplies into the war zone permitted them to reduce order–receipt time for high priority items from about two weeks to less than two days. By the war’s end, high priority cargo out of Ascension, ranging from critical electronic components to missiles, was being dropped off East Falkland within forty hours of request. Flights were exceeding twenty–eight hours by then. Each Hercules, with two crews aboard, needed two refuellings for such trips. Because Victor tankers also required refuelling on these flights, it took five Victors to get one C–130 near the Falklands to airdrop supplies. Together, pilots of these aircraft helped establish a new world endurance record for the C–130 Hercules.

Needless to say, these logistical feats were not achieved without considerable bravery on the part of pilots and dispatchers. The C–130 Hercules became the first prop–driven airplane to refuel from Britain’s Victor tankers. Differences in air speeds of these two aircraft made it impossible to refuel at level flight. The technique eventually perfected was for the Victor tanker to approach the Hercules from above and behind at a height of 23,000 feet. When the Victor was about a mile behind, the Hercules would start descending at a rate of about 500 feet per minute. The Victor then would overtake the descending Hercules and release a drogue to enable the fuel transfer. Refuelling lasted about fifteen minutes as both aircraft few at 230–240 knots, the minimum speed for the Victor tanker. The Hercules, however, had to be at full throttle in its descent to maintain this speed. Temperatures rose dramatically at times, leading to burnout of several C–130 engines over the course of the war. The refuelling process usually ended at about 8,000 feet above the sea, but slow delivery on occasion meant that drogues were not withdrawn until 2,000 feet above the sea! There were other instances where C–130s, even after successful refuelling, consumed more fuel than expected due to strong headwinds or requirements to loiter near drop zones for tactical reasons; but their pilots calmly landed them back at Ascension with little fuel remaining.

Aerial resupply operations would produce friction between 47 Air Dispatch Squadron and the BFSU Commander that eventually had to be resolved at the MoD. Because of the Commander’s insistence that space was limited at Ascension, the MoD was enforcing a policy that all airdrop loads had to be rigged in the United Kingdom rather than at Ascension, against the air dispatcher objections. Such a policy simply failed to recognize that requirements for supplies and priorities often change. Faced with the already long flight times to get supplies to Ascension, the British could ill afford to spend additional time at the last-minute disassembling and reassembling loads for airdrop. Admiral Fieldhouse therefore changed the policy on 6 May, permitting loads to be rigged at Ascension. Disagreements about this BFSU–influenced policy were only one of the frustrations then developing at the forward sustainment base.

Complicating matters on a daily basis for BFSU after its arrival was a steady flow of passengers and cargo from the United Kingdom, much of which appeared to be uncontrolled. Units and depots started dispatching supplies to the island at the same time as ships were starting their two–week journeys there. Military personnel who did not sail with the Task Force began arriving individually or in units, carrying with them whatever equipment commanders deemed necessary. There were even reports of men arriving at the Royal Air Force base at Lyneham, signing up for open passenger lists to Ascension, getting themselves aboard airplanes and heading south without proper orders. Although instances of personnel arriving at Ascension without authorization were probably rare, there undoubtedly remained a lack of appreciation by some in the United Kingdom of actual limitations on the island. The flow of personnel and equipment into the island in those first weeks proved steady, and soon space was getting tight. The build–up of support personnel on the island had ballooned to nearly a thousand during this time as well. Roughly eighty per cent of these were members of the Royal Air Force.

The BFSU commander, knowing constraints on the island and trying to keep his operation going in accordance with MoD guidance, implemented procedures that to some seemed draconian. Until portable cabins arrived and were erected, accommodation and subsistence existed for only 200 people at Ascension, all provided by Pan American. Fresh water supplies remained critically short. As a result, Captain McQueen instituted a strict ‘one in, one out’ policy as the maximum number of personnel who could be accommodated was reached. One unfortunate military chaplain, after enduring the exhausting flight to get to Ascension, arrived unannounced only to discover himself heading back to the United Kingdom on the next returning aircraft. Brigadier Thompson had arranged for a Royal Army Ordnance team to come to Ascension and help with supply operations. McQueen sent them back as well. Others who showed up and found accommodation discovered themselves pressed into service to meet workload needs. Captain McQueen occasionally commandeered vehicles and other equipment upon arrival to shift supplies around the limited area of hard standing. His unit learned to make do with whatever they could muster.

To some on the ground, running Wideawake at that time was like ‘operating a large aircraft carrier’. As flight missions were tasked from the United Kingdom, the senior Royal Air Force representative on the ground at Wideawake juggled resources, shifting aircraft already on the ground or even flying them out if necessary, to make maximum use of the limited hardstand parking. At any one time, Wideawake could house up to thirty aircraft depending on size. There were times, though, when some planes were returned to the United Kingdom or sent to Gibraltar for short periods of time to create space at the airfield for higher priority aircraft. Planes departing the United Kingdom generally flew routes through West Africa, stopping at Gibraltar en route depending on prevailing winds. Movement planners in the United Kingdom specifically coordinated refuelling in Dakar, Senegal or Banjul, Gambia to help ease aircraft demands on fuel stocks at Ascension. Aircraft would then top off at Ascension with lesser amounts before departing on return legs.

There was only so much that the BFSU and planners elsewhere could do to make operations efficient in receiving the personnel, supplies, and equipment that were arriving. Before operations got too far out of control, major installation improvements had to occur on the remote island. These requirements, ranging from establishing messing facilities for support personnel to installing a pipeline system to pump millions of gallons fuel to Wideawake, would also compete for transportation, space, and manpower.

Solving the fuel shortage problem took high priority. A request for a million gallons of aviation fuel soon arrived at the Pentagon in Washington DC. Caspar Weinberger, then the US Secretary of Defense and not a supporter of Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s shuttle diplomacy, helped immediately. The British could have obtained the fuel on the open market then, but it would have taken more time. Getting large quantities of fuel to Ascension now became relatively easy. The Pentagon just replaced tankers dispatched to Ascension as soon as they were empty. The main problem became getting the fuel to where it was needed. The pipeline then connecting Catherine’s Point, where tankers discharged fuel through a floating pipeline into an American receiving point, and the airfield had common discharge and reception piping. This meant that when fuel was discharged from tankers it could not be pumped to the airfield three and a half miles away. Initially, the British transported fuel to the airfield using tankers, but the steep, rough road proved inadequate to handle the traffic.

The MoD knew something had to be done to improve fuel supply and storage capabilities on the island because of the anticipated airflow. Sailing toward Ascension in lead vessels of the Task Force at that time were sufficient pumps, pipes, and tanks with the Tactical Supply Wing, Royal Air Force to create a small forward airfield installation to receive fuel. Soldiers from 1 Troop, 51 Squadron, Royal Engineers arrived to complete a temporary pipeline connecting the fuel farm near the bay to storage tanks by the airfield. It took the engineers only ten days to make their assessment, develop plans and lay the three–mile pipeline. By the time it was completed, soldiers from 12 Petroleum Operations Section, Royal Army Ordnance Corps were arriving to take control of the US shore installation. The Section took over the two boost pumps at the installation and another half way up the line to the airfield. Then, with the arrival of piping and 30,000–gallon collapsible pillow tanks, the Section helped enlarge the fuel farm at the airfield before taking over its operation as well. Within weeks, British soldiers and airmen had installed a fuelling system for Wideawake that included 180,000 gallons of storage capacity and a pipeline to maintain a constant flow of fuel. With the help of their American allies, they now had a steady flow of aviation fuel from tankers anchored off Georgetown. Demand from the new system was so great that, in subsequent weeks, some of the 30,000–gallon tanks would start splitting and leaking from constant emptying and filling under the tropical sun.

After completing the pipeline, engineers shifted their attention to other needs to accommodate the island’s increased population of workers. Again with the help of American suppliers, they installed a new desalination plant at English Bay, which would eventually become the site of the main transient tent camp. They renewed the sewage system there; renovated derelict buildings loaned by Cable & Wireless, making use of whatever was available; and put into operation enough portable power sources to take care of a small village. Engineers also improved the road to a remote valley so that the BFSU could move the massive build–up of ammunition further away from the airfield. The United States Air Force flew in fourteen planeloads of portable living accommodation, consisting of thirty–one twelve–man living modules. Each expanded into air–conditioned living quarters with bunks, showers, and lavatories. Originally intended for use by the United States Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, these modules were just what the British needed to house support and transit personnel. British and Americans erected them in five days. When it was all over, the British had created another small village on Ascension and nicknamed it ‘Concertina City’.

Lots of other changes were occurring elsewhere on the island. A detachment from 30 Signal Regiment arrived the weekend of the invasion. Using Cable & Wireless circuits, they established communications direct to telephone circuits in the United Kingdom, through which people at Ascension could get quick access to worldwide outlets. During the next four months, these circuits would handle about six hundred calls per day. Then 2 Postal Regiment arrived to provide mail and courier service to those in the Task Force, to include free newspapers and magazines. By the first part of May, about two and a half tons of classified mail alone were arriving weekly. By June, the Regiment handled 20,000 mailbags through Ascension. A four–man detachment from 9 Ordnance Battalion arrived to establish a laundry service for those on the island; they planned to use a 1939 mobile laundry trailer being flown out from the United Kingdom. Before the trailer arrived, though, the detachment discovered an unused laundry in Two Boats Village and restored it to working condition instead. A detachment from Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) had come and set up small facilities in Georgetown, in Two Boats Village and at English Bay. And a tri–service mess team worked nonstop, preparing a thousand meals a day from three field kitchen sites.

Despite these and countless other heroic efforts, the fledgling sustainment base was starting to crumble in the face of the massive workload just as 3 Commando Brigade arrived. The original six–man movement control detachment had become so overworked that two more teams eventually deployed to assist them. Furthermore, it was slowly becoming apparent that store handlers were having difficulties identifying and sorting military supplies that had started arriving since the weekend of the invasion.

The first vessel from the Task Force to arrive was the flagship for Admiral Woodward, the aircraft carrier Hermes, on 16 April. The following day, the amphibious force started arriving aboard Fearless, Stromness and the five LSLs. Canberra and Elk followed on 20 April after refuelling in Freetown. For days thereafter, dozens of ships of various sizes, shapes and colours would pass near or anchor in Ascension waters. It was a curious looking armada indeed. Many ships were stopping for quick replenishment of stores before continuing their passage south toward the Falklands. Routine naval procedure called for vertical replenishment by helicopters to ships in such instances. But what was then bobbing in Atlantic swells off the rocky coast of Ascension was not part of a typical Royal Navy exercise. The assembly formed a complex mixture of units from several services aboard a variety of ships, about which little was known by logisticians who had been working so frantically in and around Wideawake Airfield ever since the first planes landed on 3 April. About 500 tons of assorted supplies were waiting for these ships when they started arriving.

The Royal Navy had controlled receipt and issue of supplies on Ascension with considerable help from civilians ever since the first day. Pallets were taken from aircraft as they landed and placed in areas adjacent to the apron. Then they were sorted and moved by materiel–handling equipment to waiting or storage areas before helicopters flew them to ships. Navy teams ashore, however, were not very familiar with the Army supply system or with 3 Commando Brigade units. Adding to the confusion was the two weeks’ worth of supplies rushed helter–skelter from the United Kingdom and stacked wherever space allowed. Some of it had been destined originally for ships at ports in the UK. This cargo was relatively simple to identify and transship. Knowing what went to whom once it arrived on ships, however, was another case entirely. Most ships were transporting multiple units. Consequently, packages consigned to ships rather than units presented problems. Pallets arrived off planes without paperwork, some unmarked and others with only bar code labels on boxes. Incompletely labelled ammunition pallets made it difficult if not impossible to distinguish War Maintenance Reserve ammunition from training ammunition or, in some cases, ammunition for Royal Marines from ammunition for the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force. It was not unusual to find addressees like ‘Royal Marines Ascension’ or ‘3 Commando Brigade South Atlantic’ scribbled on pallets. As a result of all this, supplies at the airhead had become quite a mess.

Some of that might have been prevented, perhaps, if logisticians in the United Kingdom had anticipated the difficulty of conducting logistics operations under the conditions prevailing at Ascension. The rush to get things to the Task Force as quickly as possible, all too often in complete disregard of the disciplined supply system that had characterized British forces in the past, certainly created part of the problem. Sloppy supply control over the first weeks at Ascension made matters worse. There was little accounting for what arrived. Supplies were not logged in or out, and therefore it was not possible to tell where a particular item was unless someone was actually looking at it on the ground. That is to say, if a box was not in the holding area, you did not know whether it had arrived, been delivered, misplaced or even stolen. Regrettably, the latter case became reality at times. Since there was no security at the airfield holding area, supplies were subject to pilfering.

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