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Battle Atlas of the Falklands War 1982

EARLY BRITISH TASK FORCE MOVEMENTS (Parts 17-19)

Part 19. ASCENSION ISLAND - Stepping Stone to Victory

RAF Victor crew briefing on Ascension

on to 20. 3 Cdo Bde approaches Ascension

 

see also Passing Through Ascension
 a Photographic record of People, Places, Ships and Planes at Ascension Island during the Falklands War

 
 

British Forces Support Unit Ascension Island

Summary of Main Roles

ROYAL AIR FORCE DEFENCES
Surrounding area - Nimrod maritime reconnaisance aircraft from early April. 
Local air defence - three Harrier GR.3's of 1(F) Sqdn from early May until relieved later in the month by three Phantom FGR.2's of 29(F) Sqdn. RAF-manned mobile early warning radar on Green Mountain. 
Ground defence - HQ Unit, No.3 Wing and No.15 Field Sqdn, RAF Regiment. 
Other RAF Units - one 202 Sqdn Sea King and one 18 Sqdn Chinook helicopters for vertrep duties from early May. Also air movements, mobile servicing, tactical communications and meteorological units.

ARMY included:
Royal Corps of Signals
- established rear link Communications Centres for the Task Force. 
Royal Engineers - constructed 3 mile fuel pipeline system to the airfield along with 180,000 gallon bulk fuel storage, and a desalination plant.
Royal Army Ordnance Corps - operated the pipeline system capable of delivering up to 300,000 gallons each day.
Royal Corps of Transport - 47 Air Despatch Squadron prepared stores for air dropping.

ROYAL NAVY
Naval Party 1222
- arrived in early April to receive men, stores, equipment, and helicopters flown out from Britain and to arrange for transhipment south.
Fleet Air Arm - maintenance personnel prepared the arriving helicopters
No.845 NAS - one Wessex HU.5 of D Flt, provided vertrep and crossdeck delivery services together with the two RAF helicopters which arrived later.

 

 
Geography - Located at position 07.56' South, 14.22' West, 4,200 miles (3,700 nautical) from Britain and 3,800 (3,300 nautical) from the Falklands, Ascension was vital to the success of the Task Force. Close to the equator, but not unbearably hot, the 38 square mile island is a product of the mid-Atlantic ridge and completely volcanic in origin. In effect a mountain peak rising out of the sea, it is covered by sharp rock and extinct cones of dust and clinker. The highest point of Green Mountain is covered by the only tropical vegetation and trees in a largely barren landscape devoid of water and shelter. Surrounded by the almost continual swell of the South Atlantic, there are no natural harbours and only a single jetty at Clarence Bay and a small landing cove at English Bay. Amongst the abundant wildlife around the island is the sooty tern or wideawake.

History - Discovered in 1501, presumably on Ascension Day, the island remained uninhabited until the early 19th century, when with Napoleon exiled to nearby St Helena, a small Royal Navy garrison was established. Until 1922, the Admiralty was in control but then Ascension became a dependency of St. Helena with the Administrator appointed by Britain. Wideawake airfield was built in World War 2 as a staging post between Brazil and Africa and had since been developed by the Americans and the single runway extended to over 10,000 feet to take heavy transport aircraft. With only a few movements each week, it mainly served the US satellite and missile tracking facilities and British submarine cable and satellite relay stations. American-controlled and operated by Pan American Airways, British aircraft normally had to give 24 hours notice of use, but during the war this requirement was waived. The population consisted solely of contracted employees and their families from St. Helena, Britain, South Africa and the United States, and at the last census totalled 1,051. The capital is Georgetown. By 1982 the associated islands of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha were one of the few Colonies remaining to Britain. With the use of Simonstown in South Africa ruled out for obvious political reasons, Ascension Island with its airfield was the only possible forward base. But one nearly 4,000 miles from the scene of action.

 
 
     
RAF Hercules at Wideawake Airfield gives an indication of the volcanic terrain of Ascension Island (Courtesy - MOD, RAF)
 
Another view of Wideawake and the terrain, this time with Vulcan bombers on the tarmac (Courtesy - MOD, RAF)
 
Role - Even then Ascension was invaluable. The Task Force could not be completely self-contained and a lot of men and supplies had to be ferried out to the South Atlantic by a constant stream of RAF Hercules and VC.10's, chartered freighters and mainly undisclosed American aircraft bringing in such stores as the latest Sidewinder AAM's. These were either delivered to the ships as they called in or passed by, or in urgent cases, air-dropped to them on the way to the Falklands or South Georgia. Few ships spent much time there although most of the Amphibious Task Group with 3 Cdo Bde did stay to prepare for the coming landings. In the case of the troops, only limited preparation was possible as there was no room for large scale manouevres other than marching, although they were able to train on the rapidly constructed firing ranges and practice disembarking from the troopships by helicopter and landing craft. More importantly, the opportunity was taken for the hastily loaded ships to re-distribute some of their stores to other ships, to receive much needed supplies from the UK, and where possible to "combat load" for an amphibious landing. Much of the necessary "cross decking" was carried out by the helicopters with their vertical replenishment capabilities, but also taking part were the Navy landing craft, Royal Corps of Transport Mexeflotes (pictured below), and locally hired lighters. In all this movement there were major logistical problems. Wideawake had one runway and limited dispersal areas and helicopters could only land there because of the volcanic dust, there was no port, and the one jetty was three miles away and not always useable because of the Atlantic waves.

Ascension was also the main base for RAF operations in support of the Task Force. Usually refuelled in the air by a great number of Victor tanker sorties, air attacks on Stanley, reconnaissance, airdrops, and SAR were carried out by the resident Vulcans, Nimrods and Hercules. Added to all the helicopter and transport movements, these made Wideawake one of the busiest airfields in the world with up to 400 movements of all types each day.

Responsible for this array of activities was the British Forces Support Unit Ascension Island commanded by Capt R. McQueen (awarded CBE) RN. Involving all three services, some 1000 men, occasionally rising to 1500 did everything needed to support the Task Force, work the airfield in cooperation with the resident Americans and defend the island against possible attack by Argentine forces. In general the RAF was responsible for airfield operations and both air and ground defence, the Army built and manned the necessary additional facilities, and the Navy [NP 1222, Cmdr G A C Woods (OBE) RN] operated a forward logistical base for the Task Force ships.

So important to the morale of the men taking part as well as the operation of the Task Force was the efficient handling of the vast amounts of private and official mail passing through the island. Although involving all services, the Royal Engineers Postal and Courier Service [WO1 R G Randall (MBE) RE] handled up to 2 tons of airmail daily and 1000 bags of parcels each week

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Landing Ship Logistics RFA Sir Percivale heading south. Lashed alongside is a "Mexeflote". On the stern are three Royal Marine Gazelle helicopters (Courtesy - MOD, Navy)

 
 
 

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revised 31/5/13