WORLD

The noose tightens on Port Stanley

Jane O’Hara June 21 1982
WORLD

The noose tightens on Port Stanley

Jane O’Hara June 21 1982

The noose tightens on Port Stanley

WORLD

Jane O’Hara

The attack went in before dawn to wipe out the memory of a week of near-disaster, nagging doubt and

wintry frustration. Under cover of darkness, several thousand British assault troops crept from their soggy forward positions to launch a silent thrust. Dazed by sleep and the sudden shock of battle, the Argentines still fought back stubbornly. But by day’s end the British, having advanced up to 8 km, were digging in only 3 km from the outskirts of Port Stanley. In London the ministry of defence reported all objectives taken. Argentine casualties were said to be heavy, with at least 340 prisoners. Losses in the British assault force were said to be “light”. Said a relieved Defence Secretary John Nott, quoting chief of operations, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse: “It was a brilliant surprise attack.”

Nott’s demeanor at his Saturday evening press conference was in marked contrast to his stonewalling in the House of Commons two days earlier. Then, he had defiantly declined to give details of Britain’s worst setback in its 10-week campaign to retake the Falkland Islands. Earlier in the week, in the closing stages of a landing of elements of the brigade sent from England on the Queen Elizabeth 2 at Bluff Cove, in Fitzroy Sound, British ships had been caught once more with inadequate air cover by marauding Argentine Skyhawks and Mirages. In the days that followed, as details of the debacle leaked past the tight-lipped ministry of defence censors, the British public had grown uneasy at the extent of the losses. Their disquiet was echoed in a series of critical Fleet Street editorials. “Withholding the truth is to unleash rumor, which can surely do more damage,” remonstrated the Conservative Sunday Telegraph. And the nervous mood was only reinforced by vague government assurances that the setback would not lengthen what already seemed an interminable wait for the expected offensive against Stanley.

At the start of the week, as the foul weather eased and British paratroopers stood poised atop the high ground to the west of the capital, it seemed only a matter of hours before a final assault would be launched to retake the capital. But the expected advance in the improbable war never took place, even though the garrison was pounded by the guns of Royal Navy frigates and bombs from Harrier jets almost nightly. Instead, it was the Argentine forces that took the offensive, dealing Britain its costliest setback in men and matériel since the May 25 loss of 33 lives in the destroyer HMS Coventry and the supply ship Atlantic Conveyor.

Once again it was the junta’s air force that struck the body blow, as four jets roared in from behind a ridge on the shore, bombing and strafing British ships near Fitzroy, 25 km southwest of Stanley. Ministry of defence sources admitted that the attack was Britain’s “blackest day” since the outbreak of the undeclared war 10 weeks ago but would not detail the casualties. However, British government sources put the death toll on the fiery British ships at 60, with 120 wounded. The British had “got caught with their pants down,” said retired U.S. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who, along with many others, wondered why the vessels had gone in unprotected.

In its early and sketchy disclosure of details of the action, the ministry said that the 2,800-ton frigate Plymouth and two 5,674-ton assault ships, the Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, had been damaged by enemy bombs and rockets, with two Argentine jets shot down. After an eerie silence—with fears heightened by a tactless request to relatives not to telephone casualty inquiry numbers— Defence Secretary Nott insisted to Parliament that explaining the losses “could be of benefit to the enemy and put our own men at greater risk.” But that did little to assuage the fears of anxious relatives waiting for news of their sons and husbands 12,800 km away.

News of the debacle might not have surfaced for weeks had it not been for Independent Television News reporter Michael Nicholson. It was his eyewitness description, which the censors admitted had slipped through their net, that alerted Britons to their countrymen’s plight. As they turned on their evening news bulletin June 9, they heard Nicholson describe the horrific conflagration that followed the bombings of the two assault ships, little more than ferries, armed only with 40-mm machine guns. “I saw men swim underwater away from the ship to avoid the burning oil,” said Nicholson. He went to describe daring rescue attempts by Sea King helicopter pilots.

While Britain reeled from the shock of the latest setback, tens of thousands of Argentines celebrated this feat of arms at a national day ceremony reaffirming Argentina’s sovereignty over Las Malvinas. The flag-waving continued on Friday when Pope John Paul II arrived in Buenos Aires on a hastily arranged two-day visit to offset his recent tour to Britain. Close to three million citizens and 30,000 security forces—almost four times the number occupying the Falklands—lined the

Despite their losses the British were in a favorable position to make their final assault on Stanley

32-km papal route from Ezeiza airport to the Metropolitan Cathedral. At a solemn outdoor mass held in the freezing rain the Pope pleaded for “a just and lasting peace.” As he spoke, the official Telam news agency was claiming a total British death toll of 2,000, with 27 ships put out of action and 50 aircraft destroyed.

The high spirits in Buenos Aires, however, were in stark contrast to the morale of Argentine forces on the islands as portrayed in an intercepted radio message: a BBC listening post in Chile picked up a report from military governor Mario Menendez in Stanley to his high command that said that the British advance had made it impossible to relieve troops who were promised they would be sent home. Said Menendez: “If things go on like this, our situation could crumble rapidly.”

Indeed, despite their losses at Fitzroy and Bluff Cove, Britain’s land forces —elite units of Royal Marines, paratroops, Guards and Gurkhas—were in a favorable position to make their final assault on the Stanley garrison. In Britain, after a meeting with her war cabinet, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reiterated that “all the indications” were that the estimated 7,000 Argentine troops would not surrender. She also warned that “heavy casualties” would likely ensue from the battle for Stanley. But she firmly rejected Labour Leader Michael Foot’s suggestion that Britain reopen negotiations at the United Nations. Mindful of Britain’s mounting losses, Thatcher maintained that it would be “unthinkable” to negotiate unless the Argentines withdrew their troops. “That would be a betrayal of those we have called upon to make great sacrifices,” she said.

Thatcher’s gloomy predictions for the impending battle were offset by the arrival in Southampton of the QE 2, the luxury liner that had ferried 3,500 troops to the islands more than a month ago. Lining the decks of the ship were 644 survivors from the Coventry, Ardent and Antelope, which had been downed by Argentine bombers in the faraway war. They were greeted by family members, a sea of fluttering Union Jacks and a red carpet as they walked down the gangway.

The pier-side celebrations took Britain’s mind off the rising death toll the past few days at least temporarily. And news of Saturday’s successful tack reinforced the change of mood. First indications of the assault came a bulletin from the Argentine high command. Radio and television coverage Pope John Paul II’s final mass was interrupted for a brief communiqué. said: “At dawn today, English forces started a ground attack on Argentine positions in the Puerto Argentina [Port Stanley] area. Fierce fighting is presently taking place.” Military sources Buenos Aires said that two civilians had been killed in the naval bombardment that preceded the attack.

In London the defence ministry sued a terse disclaimer. A spokesman recalled merely that the ministry never commented on Argentine reports. But was learned later that Thatcher had visited the Falklands operational headquarters in suburban Northwood for a briefing from Sir John Fieldhouse, knighted last week for his services. And Nott was said to be hurrying to London to issue his statement.

The British attack was reported to have closely followed the pattern of a probing operation carried out several days earlier. Then a large force of paratroopers crept within hailing distance of key Argentine positions and withdrew undetected. In the early hours of Saturday, assault troops pounced on Argentine forward posts. “The first they knew of the attack was when they woke up staring down the barrel of a gun,” Nott said. Military sources said that the operation was carried out with great professionalism and stealth. There was fighting, but the Argentines “soon realized their position was hopeless.” No further details however, were offered.

For its part, Buenos Aires acknowledged that the attack had penetrated the outer defence ring around Stanley. But it said that the British forces had been checked after an advance of 3.5 km to Mounts Langdon and Harriet, overlooking Stanley. Intense artillery duels and mortar fire were in progress. Calculating the losses, the Argentine high command said a Harrier jump jet had been downed and another damaged.

As the British moved closer to Stanley, there were also increasing fears about the safety of the estimated 300 civilians believed to be remaining in the Falklands capital. On Sunday the International Red Cross appealed to both sides to create a neutral zone in the town, where those civilians who have not already fled could seek refuge from the storm about to envelope them.

At first, the British attack was hailed as the final offensive against Stanley. But as Sunday dawned, it was clear that that operation was still to come. Indeed, as has been the case so often in the conflict, the British seemed to have scaled one barrier only to find a larger one ahead. And that process seemed to stretch far into the future. Even with Stanley in British hands, there would loom the task of capturing the Argentine garrison on West Falkland—and after that the military problem of holding the islands.

All week, too, the debate continued about the islands’ political and economic future. Prominent in the controversy, The Times’ respected columnist, C. Gordon Tether, encapsulated the view of British hawks who would avoid “appeasement” with a hard-line refusal to accept any post-victory plan leading to Argentine sovereignty.

Tether dismissed the claims of doves such as Social Democratic Party leadership contestant Roy Jenkins, who argued in a recent Times article that “without a negotiated settlement there is [no] prospect of ending the economic stagnation of the Falklands.” Acknowledging that nervous capitalists would likely steer clear of the islands, and that the area’s oil and gas development might suffer, Tether insisted that the capital pool needed to ensure the tiny population of a prosperous future would be negligible.

But such optimism was not universal. Day by day, the human face of tragedy continued to surface in the casualty lists. As Thatcher continued to speak of defending the islands indefinitely, and the Argentine junta countered with talk of pursuing the conflict even after a defeat at Stanley, it was left to a Scottish Labour MP to ask the disturbing question that has been more and more on British minds: is Britain presiding over a Vietnam in the South Atlantic?

With

Carol Kennedy

in London

and

William Lowther

in Washington