There is a persistent myth that the Argentine forces were a bunch of frightened, underfed and ill equipped conscripts with no clue of their business. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their equipment in many cases was superb, in part, much better than that enjoyed by British forces.
Defensive positions were well sited and constructed, they had made excellent use of visual deceptions and the radar and ECM equipment were not only extensive but exceptionally well operated as well. Many were volunteers, thought right was on their side and fought with great skill, determination and gallantry. They were not short of most things, there were ample rations, ammunition and equipment, it was just poorly distributed which meant there were many local shortages outside Port Stanley, especially of food. However, the rift between the officer and other ranks was enormous, logistics was inconsistent and at the end of the day, they had no campaign plan because quite simply, they did not expect such a resolute response. The best soldiers on the planet, sailing 8,000 miles across open ocean, supported by equally fine air and sea forces, and with firm intent, fighting skill and centuries of tradition behind them was simply not within their range of expectations.
Following the surrender of the Argentine forces, it was now time to consolidate and prevent a rematch.
Although Argentina had accepted the Instrument of Ceasefire they only recognised this locally, there was no wider recognition of the cessation of hostilities so although they were down for the count the British government recognised that the nature of the unfinished business needed sensible and sturdy consolidation.
Unfortunately, the scale of the other problems facing both the victorious military forces and civilian inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were immense, there were many priorities, every single one of them number one.
Disposal of the detritus of war, getting the defeated Argentine forces home safe and well, restoring damaged or destroyed utilities, keeping everyone fed and watered, rotating British forces out of theatre, satisfying the demands of the world’s media and basically getting the islanders back to some semblance of normality all competed with rehabilitating the airport.
That said, commanders were entirely focussed on the airport facilities, it might have been competing with other resource demands but it was generally beating them as well. Unlike the Argentine forces, we recognised the strategic value of air defence from the islands.
For several weeks, there was also a real fear that elements of the Argentine forces might try an armed publicity stunt.
If many considered the conduct of the Argentine forces to very good during the conflict, towards the end, and after, they somewhat spoiled that.
A vast quantity and variety of mines had been laid and not just in out of the way locations. The hazard to civilians (especially children) and service personnel was enormous. On June 14th Major Roddy McDonald, the OC of 59 Independent Squadron Royal Engineers managed to track down the Argentine chief engineer, one Lt. Col Dorago, in order to assess the scale of the mine problem. Other personnel from 59 joined in, a warning was broadcast on local radio and through the military chain of command, and fourteen selected Argentine volunteers were utilised to complete the recce.
By the end of the day, the full realisation of the scale of the Argentine mining and booby trapping efforts had become apparent.
It was staggering.
They simply did not know how many or where mines had been laid, records were incomplete or incorrect, markers had been removed and mines had shifted in peat and deep sand. The problem was made worse because the Argentine chain of command allowed almost any unit to lay mines, marines, artillery and all manner of infantry units, not just the professional combat engineers. After a number of casualties the clearance effort changed to one of ‘marking only’
The POW volunteer force of Argentine combat engineers expanded, formed a close working relationship with British forces and received special privileges and pay not enjoyed by other POW’s. A joint guard of honour and bugler were provided for the burials of Argentine soldiers discovered during the clearance operations and in thanks for the rapid medevac and treatment of an injured Argentine member of the demining team they paid for and cooked a barbecue for British members of the team and OC of 9 Parachute Squadron RE.
9 PARA left for the UK on the 17th July and were replaced in the mine clearance role by 69 Ghurka Independent Field Squadron RE.
There was a lot of sympathy/pity for the prisoners of war but that understandably evaporated when the scale of booby trapping and vindictive sabotage became known. Argentine forces had deliberately set many complex booby traps in the latter stages of the conflict in civilian houses and places of business. These were often linked to attractive items like boots, binoculars or thermos flasks and many of the discarded munitions were also booby trapped, some even attached to propane cylinders. Water supply in Port Stanley was always a problem, Argentine forces even turned all the taps on in houses they occupied and opened fire hydrants. Desalination equipment was lost on the Atlantic Conveyor, as well as tentage for five thousand personnel, exacerbating the problems. 9 Squadron and 61 Field Support Squadron RE managed to get water supplies running after four days and this was supplemented with water dracones towed into Port Stanley harbour.
In addition, to mines and booby traps, an equally huge problem was that of unexploded munitions of every kind. Everything from small arms ammunition to napalm canisters to anti-aircraft missiles to flares were strewn around the area, half opened and often poorly accounted for.
‘Dumdum’ small arms ammunition was found in addition to a large stock of SA-7 MANPAD missiles fresh off the plane from Col. Gadaffi. Grenades, flares, rockets, cannon shells, mortar bombs, small arms ammunition, aircraft bombs, missiles, napalm, and artillery ammunition all needed to be tackled. Unboxed ammunition was recovered to the UK but anything else was made safe and destroyed by a combined Royal Navy, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Engineers and Royal Air Force team of EOD specialists.
Repatriating Argentine personnel and maintaining good order was made worse by the gulf between their officers and other ranks, a gulf, generally speaking, filled with a deep dislike bordering on hatred. This was plainly a result of the huge difference in the way they were both treated; officers had different, and larger, rations packs for example, including whiskey and cigarettes. The Globe Store was burned down by Argentine soldiers because they thought it was where their officers were accommodated and but for officers being allowed to retain their side arms, many might not have made it home.
For the most part, Argentine forces were well beaten and looking forward to going home, some weren’t though, the marines, for example, marched to the weapons surrender point and promptly burned their colours lest they become a souvenir in some Officers Mess in the UK.
Indeed, there were a number of slight lapses of UK military discipline as the acquisition of trophy’s and venting steam threatened to spoil the atmosphere. As Jeremy Edmund Shackleton Larken, British officer commanded HMS Fearless during Falklands War, 1982 commented that there was a;
a general acquisitive approach to liberating Argentine equipment
This was quickly dealt with.
The area of Port Stanley, a town that normally supported about 800 people, was no home to ten thousand POW’s, about five thousand UK military personnel, and of course, the permanent residents.
And all this was before the problems of the airport had been addressed.
There were three broad objectives for the British Forces;
ONE; Re-establish basic air operations at Stanley Airport such that they could support Harrier and Hercules aircraft. This would allow much of the task force, especially the aircraft carriers, to return to the UK, and replacement forces to arrive quickly.
TWO; Extend and reinforce Stanley Airport to allow the Harriers to depart and be replaced with Phantoms.
THREE; Select a suitable location for a large military airfield that could support all current and future combat and transport aircraft.
RAF Stanley – Phase One
Stanley Airport, formerly BAM Malvinas, was in an equally poor state as Port Stanley.
The image below reportedly taken the day after the surrender, shows Stanley Airport
Day after surrender.
Prisoners were an added complication around the airport in the days after surrender. Many of them were temporarily accommodated at the airport, it was an obvious place, easily contained, safe, yet surrounded by their own mines and with only one means of access before Boxer Bridge was built by 25 Field Squadron Royal Engineers in 1983.
The first task to conduct a survey and make safe any exploded munitions, booby traps and mines, of which there were plenty.
This task would fall to both the Royal Engineers and Royal Air Force EOD teams. No.1 Bomb Disposal Group RAF would play a considerable part in clearing Stanley Airport of unexploded munitions but that had a difficult start to the campaign. On the 27th of match they boarded RFA Sir Bedivere with all their vehicles and equipment but when loading had completed, were ordered off again. Another four man team clearing unexploded cluster bomblets from the West Freugh range in Scotland had been killed and the embarked team were disembarked in order to complete the task. The team would eventually join the task force by being flown to Ascension Island to catch up with Sir Bedivere. The team cleared munitions in San Carlos and Goose Green, especially the leaking napalm cannisters and mines at Goose Green. By the time the team had finished its deployment, it had cleared over 900 unexploded bombs, numerous mines and booby traps and tonnes of napalm.
The Argentine aircraft that were left at Stanley Airport were also cleared of booby traps, munitions removed and to prevent accidents by the ever present ‘trophy hunters’ the ejection seats were removed (firing the ejection seats was also used to initiate booby traps)
A number of PoW’s volunteered for removing none explosive debris and sweeping the runway after they assumed that such endeavours would earn them a priority ticket home, quite how they came to this belief has never been determined!
A number of Exocet missiles were also found, the canisters which would be used later.
Making Good the Runway
During the conflict, the runway was cratered by 5 bombs. The first and deepest was from Black Buck I and the others were much shallower, from retarded bombs dropped by the Sea Harriers/Harrier GR.3a’s. There were also over 1,000 shallow scabs from rockets, BL 755 bomblets, 4.5” shells and cannon fire.
59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers (with a troop from 20 Field Squadron) filled in three craters and about 500 of the scabs on the Northern half of the runway, the repairs were made by using magnesium phosphate cement called Bostik 276.
The thousand pound bomb craters on the runway were backfilled and a quantity of AM-2 repair matting used to cover them. It was also discovered that Argentine engineers had used filled oil drums to fill the Vulcan crater, these were removed
Harrier Operations and Airport DevelopmentUsing PSA-1 from the Port San Carlos FOB and a quantity of AM-2 matting left at the airport a short parallel runway, to the north of the main runway, was also created for use by Harriers.
The RAF Harrier GR.3 detachment, armed with Sidewinders, went ashore to Port Stanley Airport on the 4th of July and operated in the air defence role. A number of Rhubb shelters were installed to provide sheltered maintenance spaces but the weather was so severe, a number were dislodged and damaged aircraft.
11 Field Squadron Royal Engineers also supported the repair effort and as can be imagined, the tasks were extremely varied. Not widely known is that in order to create a drainage culvert, the engineers used a pair of empty Exocet missile containers.
In addition, to the runway, the airport support facilities were enhanced greatly and the sign was changed as well.