By the Editor – Again as in the preceding article, I ask how do you view mission command or ‘Auftragstaktik’, as the author terms it below? Making things work, focussing on the outcome is writ large in this account of Ascension Island as a critical J1/J4 hub
“Without Ascension Island, there would have been no Operation Corporate.”
Cdre Mike Clapp, Commander of the Amphibious Task Group 1
In March of 1982, I had already been selected for promotion to Commander, and as a temporary appointment was leading a study into the complement of a new class of warships (the Type 23), and visiting frequently my friend, the late John Eglen, who worked in the attics of the Admiralty. John was married to an Anglo-Argentine woman; I had visited the Argentine twice in ships, and in 1971 I had led an expedition, by Landrover, from Valparaíso via Puerto Montt in Chile across the Andes to Buenos
Aires. We both spoke Spanish and I had many friends in that beautiful country.
Quite improperly we had put ourselves on the delivery-indictor-group (DIG) for signals about the growing crisis in the South Atlantic, and no one thought it strange to deliver highly classified messages to us; for example, from Capt Nick Barker in the Antarctic patrol ship HMS Endurance. We read and analysed the signals avidly: it was clear that something quite extraordinary was happening in South Georgia and that an Argentinian invasion of the Falklands was obvious and inevitable.
We were unaware that across the road in the main building of the MoD there was no similar appreciation of the intelligence. After the war I would read the report by Lord Franks who had been commissioned by the government of the day to enquire into what prior notice there had been of the war. Franks concluded that the British government had no warning of the decision by the Junta in Buenos Aires to invade the islands and that “the invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April could not have been foreseen.”1 I would be flabbergasted to read this.
However, on the evening of Thursday, 31 March I was not surprised to be detailed to join the Naval Emergency Advisory Group (NEAG) on the following Monday morning. I handed in my study findings report to the typing pool, expecting to sign it the next week and hand it in: I never saw that report again.
By the time that I arrived home in Devon, new orders reached me over the telephone: I was to be prepared to travel overseas. The speaker couldn’t tell me on an open line where, nor what the task was, but I was to be prepared to be very cold while travelling and to arrive somewhere very warm. That sounded to me like a flight at high level in a Hercules to somewhere near the Equator. A quick look at the atlas, using my forked fingers as dividers to measure off the distances, gave me a clue and on Friday afternoon just before closing I visited the local Kingsbridge library to glean what I could about my probable destination: there were three lines in a very large gazetteer about Ascension Island, and I duly went home to pack my tropical, white uniform.
I distinctly remember on Saturday morning listening to the BBC and the debate in the House of Commons, which had been specially recalled. The government minister who was speaking knew less than I did from my reading of the signals a day or so before and appeared unaware of the difference in time zones between London and the Falklands. Later that day a car collected me, and I was driven to Northwood where I was taken into ‘the hole’, the underground headquarters, to meet CINCFLEET, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse in the cramped room that would be his in the event of a nuclear war.
Sir John said: “Ah, Peter, you’re going out to Ascension Island.” “Yes, sir,” I replied, leaning forward to catch his words. “I want you to go there and make things work,” he said, looking hard at me, while I waited for him to say more, wondering what words of advice there were to follow. Instead, after a moment, he nicked his head at me, and I realised that that was my briefing. “Aye, Aye, sir!” I replied. Much later, when I became the Royal Navy’s Head of Defence Studies, I would look back on that exchange of words as a fine example of Auftragstaktik.2
The original signalled requirement was unambitious, stating only that the probability existed of passing small quantities of urgently needed air-portable freight through a temporary airhead on Ascension. Maj Gen Privratsky, in the only full-length study of the logistics of the 1982 Falklands War, has described how five officers and 20 men who arrived on the island during the first weekend of the Falklands War. 3
I was given the S&S emergency relief team, led by FCSA North, and one rating from each branch and we formed Naval Party (NP) 1222, somewhat brashly also called the Royal Navy’s forward logistic unit.4 On arrival Ascension Island, my first task was a survey of the island and its facilities. Well described in the official history,5 it is 38 square miles of the most hostile environment one can imagine. The nightmare landscape consists of volcanic ash and dust, clinker, broken rock, and lava flows. The island is geologically young, and the rock has had little time to weather, and I was struck by the sharpness of the rock as if newly blasted from a quarry. Situated 8° South and 14° West in the trade winds there is a stable climate; the temperature about 18º–21°C year-round with a prevailing south-easterly breeze blowing at about 18 knots on 364 days of the year. At sea level there is some 15cm of annual rainfall: the Pilot 6 told me that this rain falls as light showers or drizzle but, in early 1982, much of it fell in heavy tropical downpours which caused flash floods and large pools of water which quickly evaporated.
By contrast, Green Mountain in the island’s centre at nearly 3,000 ft. has some 50cm of rain. Formerly water was stored in catchments but by 1982 these were disused. On the upper slopes of Green Mountain lies a derelict farm, an attempt by Cable and Wireless to provide fresh meat and vegetables. The verdant appearance of Green Mountain contrasts starkly with the barrenness of the lower slopes. Some bays have beaches of soft white sand but steep-to and enclosed by sharp rocks, and all round the island the unexpected swell, strong undertow and offshore set, to say nothing of the voracious sea life (blackfish, moray eels, sharks) are a discouragement to swimming.
Ascension went unclaimed by any nation from its discovery in 1501 until 1815, when the Royal Marines garrisoned the island to forestall any French rescue attempts of Napoleon in exile on St Helena 700 miles away. The island was one of the Admiralty’s ‘stone frigates’, HMS Ascension, until 1922 when control passed to the Eastern Telegraph Company.
During World War II the USA obtained a lease of parts of the island, when the 38th Combat Engineer Battalion of the US Army Corps of Engineers built an airstrip. And on 15 June 1942 the first landing on Ascension by an aircraft was by a Swordfish on anti-submarine reconnaissance flown from the escort carrier HMS Archer.7
By 1982 the temporary residents of Ascension were all employees or contractors of British companies and American agencies (e.g. GCHQ, Cable and Wireless, BBC, Pan Am, South Africa Cable (SAC), NASA, NSA) comprising about 1,000 people, including 58 European families and 600 contract workers from St Helena (amongst whom there were some 200 schoolchildren) and about 200 American unaccompanied civilians. Unless employed by one of the companies or members of HM Forces, no one else was allowed on the island
The nature of the American base was much misunderstood. The very words conjure up visions of acres of runway, several choices of clubs, a large PX, and unlimited resources. Little could be further from actuality. Part of the US Eastern Test Range, Wideawake had a uniformed complement of one, the base commander, a lieutenant-colonel. The US mission was to track the many satellites which flew overhead, there was one 10,000-ft runway and normal activity was two or three aircraft per fortnight. The island is sovereign British territory, the airfield and associated facilities were leased by the USA, who were obliged under treaty to provide logistical support to the British. All services were run under contract by Pan Am, but there was certainly no base in any operational sense. In the words of Adm Fieldhouse’s official despatch, Ascension was largely devoid of all resources and possessed “totally inadequate technical and domestic back-up.” As RAdm ‘Sandy’ Woodward wrote, it would be a “tremendous piece of improvisation in very short order [as] Ascension was transformed from a US communications and tracking station into a forward fleet and air base in a matter of days.”8
The build-up of the forward operating base on Ascension from 25 officers and men during the first weekend to 800 personnel after three weeks, and then to a peak of 1,400 (including transitees), happened in three overlapping phases. The initial phase and crises which developed internally on Ascension, a phase of intense operations, and a final place of widening horizons before the organisation was handed over in mid-July to the RAF, after victory in the Falklands. The remarkable thing is that the organisation developed and functioned without written orders for several weeks; yet it succeeded so well in melding together diverse units, many of whose personnel had no experience of tri-service operations. Though differences between the Services in attitude and manning were revealed, force of personality, clear objectives and daily and regular briefing united the teams. Much of course also depended on good will, of which there was an abundance among all, not least the Pan Am manager, Don Coffey, whose resource and ingenuity made him the key player on the US side. 9
An early discovery was that although the reinforcement plan for Ascension Island had been recently revised in London, it had not been reviewed by the island authorities, and the contents were inaccurate and largely irrelevant. As I disembarked from my Hercules, a representative of GCHQ pressed a wadge of urgent signals into my hands. The organisation which quickly developed was threefold: first, naval operations including all rotary-
wing aircraft; second, RAF operations which in particular encompassed the tremendous achievements of RAF transport command; and logistics.
By noon on 6 April 1982, when Capt Bob McQueen arrived as Commander British Forces Support Unit. Later CINCFLEET would write that McQueen “had a difficult task to perform, requiring great tact and working under enormous pressure. That he succeeded was crucial to the success of the operation.”10 However, the base had been operating for many hours continuously: three Lynx helicopters were flying, and two Wessex helicopters were preparing for ground running; in Clarence Bay the fleet auxiliary Fort Austin was being loaded by lighter; Hercules were arriving regularly, about six or eight per day, but there was little control over the flow of men and cargo; and units and individuals brought with them whatever equipment they or their commanders deemed necessary. On 21 April I noted that there were 300 helicopter movements involving 300 passengers and 400,000 lbs of freight.
After RFA Fort Austin sailed, it became an urgent necessity to reduce any risks on the airfield by creating a dedicated ammunition depot. An ideal site was found in a remote valley, but the only access was along a track liable to flash flooding. This led to an unusual demand for stores: I requested a pipe, 20 feet long and 4 feet in diameter and capable of withstanding a 10-ton axle weight, capable of being used as a conduit under a makeshift road. This arrived within two days of the demand, and ammunition was soon being trailered away from its unpleasant proximity to fuel, aircraft and vehicles and into some temporary shade.11
At some stage an RAF Wing-Commander arrived to carry out a management study. He stayed briefly before being hustled off home by Bob McQueen, but one of the consequences of his visit was that I was promoted to acting-Commander and became J4 or Joint Logistics Commander, ASI.
A transport pool was formed by commandeering unit vehicles, as they were unloaded from Hercules. In the early days, the OCRM of 845 NAS ran the pool and the most conspicuous volunteer drivers were a group of young medical officers waiting to join ships. When the transport pool vehicles were depleted, night raiding parties removed the fuses from parked vehicles, thus forcing the would-be possessors to ask the transport officer for help when he would promptly requisition the keys.
The Pan Am accommodation was capable of taking about 200 men. A campsite at English Bay, which had been used by RAF signallers after the Second World War and by West Indian contract labour later, provided a roof for some 50 men more. Units pooled tents and rations, and field kitchens were established. Fortunately, the RN regularly exercises setting up such kitchens as part of its emergency relief training. Eventually three such field kitchens were set up, supervised by a RN catering officer, which fed over 1,000 men a day. For a while, rations were one-man 24-hour type, donated by 42 Squadron RAF, requiring considerable wrist work to provide bulk meals. Very soon however the RN had moved in refrigerated containers and landed sufficient dry food to enable a more varied diet. However, I found a signal from the MoD advising me to make maximum use of local purchase (i.e. to go shopping); somewhat irritating and I must have been quite tired when I told the MoD that they were being unrealistic.
At another stage the senior RAF officer requested a halt to all helicopter movements for a window of an hour when large fixed-wing aircraft were due to arrive from the UK. There followed a quick conference between naval officers on the island when we agreed that Wideawake would be treated like an aircraft carrier and the maximum window which could be allowed was a few minutes. It is claimed that the airfield at Wideawake became the busiest airfield in the world: this was confirmed by Don Coffey calling a chum at Chicago O’Hare. At least until early June helicopter movements outnumbered fixed wing movements by a ratio of over five to one. The helicopters came from visiting warships, of course, and from the newly resident Wessex Vs of D Flight 845 Naval Air Squadron. Particular credit is due to the youthful naval pilots who flew more hours in the early days of April than they might have expected in a year of peacetime activity. There was no choice on Ascension but to run the single airstrip and limited hardstanding like an aircraft carrier, with rotary and fixed wing flying taking place simultaneously with the movement ‘on deck’ of men, stores and vehicles. The absence of ground and air safety incidents was due not to luck but to the training and professionalism of all who participated.
Fuel, in particular aviation spirit, was a persistent problem. Fortunately, the Island’s stocks for normal consumption were relatively large, but the frequent launch of large flights of aircraft necessary to support elderly, fuel-hungry Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers on operations in the South Atlantic soon depleted reserves. Fuel had to be pumped ashore from tankers anchored in Clarence Bay, but the fuel pumped ashore from these ships required time to settle, and a new tank farm of fabric pillows was established at Wideawake and a fleet of bowsers increased reserves, but fuel always required careful management.
Perhaps the most important and war-winning supply through the airhead at Wideawake was 100 Sidewinder 9L missiles on 15 May. The Sea Harrier/9L combo played the major part in the air victory over the Falklands, allowing low level CAP to turn away dozens of Argentinian attack missions, significantly reducing the level of damage sustained by the amphibious force and its protective screen of warships. The early phases of this air war had been fought with a small stock of Sidewinder 9Ls, but in mid-May the US Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the USAF and USN to rearm the British. I had only just returned from interrogating prisoners of war in RAF Tidespring, when these extra missiles arrived at 0200 in the morning – and were quickly shipped south.12
Much was a learning process, and practices had to be worked out from first principles. However, by mid-June the J4 function had grown to cover supply, catering, medical, administration, transport, police and accommodation, including re-equipping survivors and the repatriation of survivors. The same principles and processes which were developed for evacuation of survivors (to arrive in time for the main broadcast news in UK), could be applied to repatriation of prisoners of war (who were flown at dead of night so that they could not observe operations at Wideawake). Adm Fieldhouse’s order “to make things work” remained in the forefront of my mind as I set up contracts to draw stores from the BBC and Cable and Wireless workshops, and commandeered in flight rations from the RAF to feed to island’s burgeoning population.
Naval operations on Ascension Island ended undramatically: after the surrender of the Argentinians, one evening Capt McQueen slipped away quietly, the RAF began to take over Ascension’s administrative functions, and, in early July, I too left to take up a new
appointment as Sec/ACNS(P) on the date which had been published earlier in the year. Only many years later did I read in Bob McQueen’s book his appreciation of his J4, the “indomitable supply officer whose influence on the smooth flow of the operation was unruffled and benign”. 13
1 Franks, Oliver, and Alex Danchev foreword, The Franks Report: Falkland Islands Review (London: Pimlico, 1992) para 265–6
2 Mission Command
3 Privratsky, Kenneth L, and Julian Thompson, Logistics in The Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare
(Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2014) p 63
4 Hore, Peter, “Logistics Operations on Ascension Island 1982”, The Naval Review, 80 (1992), 343–34. I kept various notes and papers, but after the war I gave all these to the Head of the Naval History Branch, to help him in writing his book The Royal Navy and the Falklands War. I never saw my notes again, and my subsequent account of events on ASI was reconstructed from memory when asked to do so ten years later.
5 Freedman, Lawrence, The Official History of The Falklands Campaign Vol II War and Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 2005) pp 62–62 ; see also Brown, David H, The Royal Navy and The Falklands War (London: Leo Cooper, 1988) pp 69–70
6 Admiralty Sailing Directions, South American Pilot: Volume 1
8 Woodward, Sandy, with Patrick Robinson, and Margaret Thatcher (foreword), One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of The Falklands Battle Group Commander (London: HarperCollins, 1992) p 86
9 Thompson, Julian, 3 Commando Brigade in The South Atlantic (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 1992) p 23
10 London Gazette, Despatch by Commander in Chief of The Task Force Operations in The South Atlantic: April to June 1982 (London: HMSO, 1982), pp 16111. See also http://c1a4d4a4a40988b14f1b-c7a3803ab0f7212d059698df03a de453.r91.cf1.rackcdn.com/821213%20Op%20Crop%20Despatch%20(653-20).pdf
11 McQueen (ed), Robert, Island Base: Ascension Island in The Falklands War (Caithness: Whittles Publishing, 2008) pp 78–79
12 “Foreign Relations Of The United States, 1981–1988, Volume XIII, Conflict In The South Atlantic, 1981–1984 – Office Of The Historian”, History.State.Gov, 2021 https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1981-88v13/d265 [Accessed 31 December 2021]
13 McQueen (ed), Robert, Island Base: Ascension Island in The Falklands War (Caithness: Whittles Publishing, 2008) p 32