Friday, April 27, 2012

The South Georgia campaign in the Falklands War

Santa Fe scuttled at South Georgia Island

The campaign over South Georgia in the Falklands War offers a microcosm of the entire conflict, as British pluck overcome some hairy moments while Argentine valor was no match for strategic ineptitude.

The entire war erupted when it did because of  an incident involving Argentine workmen landing on South Georgia in March without permission to dismantle a whaling station and raising the Argentine flag to proclaim possession. The Argentine Junta, which had already planned to invade the Falklands in September, suddenly moved up the timetable by six months, with doleful consequences for its war effort.

Jointly with its invasion of the main Falkland islands on April 2, the Argentine landed troops on South Georgia on April 3 and captured it, but not before taking embarrassingly heavy damage from the tiny garrison of just 22 Royal Marines with light arms. A helicopter was shot down, a second helicopter was damaged and an Argentine frigate was disabled.

Before the month was out, however, the British were back in possession of the barren island. The initial British efforts barely escaped disaster when bad weather threatened the lives of special forces troops landed on the Fortuna Glacier on April 21. On April 22 two helicopters were lost due to the weather and the troops had to be rescued.

The strategic ineptitude of the Argentinians was revealed by the misuse of the submarine Santa Fe.  While old and not very effective, the mere presence of the Santa Fe was enough to disrupt British operations and cause them to pull their naval forces away from the island, But it turned out that the Santa Fe was not there to stalk the British ship but merely to deliver reinforcements of 40 marines to the island. This mission caused the submarine to be caught on the surface as it was departing the island by a British helicopter on April 25. The Wessex used depth charges to damage the Sante Fe and prevent it from diving and a follow-up attack by a Wasp helicopter with an AS.12 air-to-surface missile damaged the sub further. It fled back to South Georgia and was scuttled in the harbor.

Later that same day the British landed troops on South Georgia and by the next day the Argentine garrison of 137 surrendered, so the reinforcements brought by the Sante Fe did absolutely nothing to beef up the defenses and just added to the haul of prisoners. If, instead, the submarine had been used to interdict the approaches to the island the British effort to retake it would have been more complicated.

While there may be a role for the submarine insertion of clandestine special operation forces, using submarines as transports for conventional  forces seems like a huge waste of resources. The Japanese also tried it a few times in World War II but to little effect. It's hard to see how riflemen brought in by the limited carrying capacity of a submarine could possibly have as much use as simply using the submarine properly as a warship. Losing the Santa Fe was a huge blow to the Argentine effort because it wiped out half of their operational submarines. While they had four boats on paper, only the Santa Fe, a US-made Guppy II class sub and the San Luis, a German-made Type 209 sub were usable . The other Guppy in the Argentine Navy, Santiago del Estero was cannibalized for parts and the other Type 209, the Salta, had  a noise problem that rendered it unserviceable.  The San Luis made several unsuccessful attacks on the British task force over the course of the war, and the British task force made equally unsuccessful attempts to sink her.  It was a major distraction for the task force, however, and one wonders what effect the presence of another submarine might have had. Indeed, had the Argentinians actually had four operational submarines instead of one, they might have foiled the invasion. They only had to get lucky once.

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