Task Force South was the name given to the naval armada that sailed south from Britain at the start of the effort to reclaim the Falkland Islands. The task force was a mixture of naval ships (aircraft carriers, destroyers and support ships) and requisitioned merchant ships including ferries and two luxury liners – the ‘Canberra’ and the ‘QE2’.
On April 2nd 1982, Argentinean commandos landed near Port Stanley. It was the start of a full-scale invasion of the islands and South Georgia. On April 4th, nuclear powered hunter-killer submarines, including the ‘Conqueror’ that sank the ‘Belgrano’ secretly left Faslane naval base. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked Britain’s military hierarchy if it was possible to put together a task force as soon as was possible. Thatcher was assured that it was by Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord.
On April 5th, three days after the invasion, ‘HMS Invincible’ and ‘HMS Hermes’ left Portsmouth. It had taken just days to fully load and equip both aircraft carriers and their escorts including the assault ship ‘Fearless’. It would be their task to sail ahead of other ships to enforce the 200-mile exclusion zone and neutralise Argentina’s navy.
The ‘QE2’ sailed with Guards and Ghurkhas on May 12th.
These ships stopped off at Ascension Islands to allow the men to literally stretch their legs (Army infantry units were unaccustomed to the restrictive confines of a ship) and to practice on land their firing skills. 3 Para’s anti-tank platoon fired 37 years worth of rounds in just one day.
Both Royal Marines and men from the Parachute Regiment also practised their sea skills as it became more and more obvious that an amphibious landing would almost certainly be the choice of General John Moore and his senior advisors.
The break at Ascension Island allowed time to get all the ships organised. While the departure of the ships from the UK had been quick and seemingly without fault, many pieces of equipment were loaded onto ships just to get them at sea as soon as was possible. At Ascension, helicopter crews could move equipment to the ship it needed to be on.
Each unit was also given one afternoon off to visit the beach for some relaxing recreation.
The journey south was taken up with weapons drill and fitness work. For those sailors in the Royal Navy, the equator crossing brought with it a ceremony to mark this crossing – see the photo. The further the ships sailed to the Falklands the worse the sea conditions became. To those on board ship this was not pleasant – to the fleet commanders it was a huge help against the Argentineans as rough seas made it almost certain that there would be no air or sea assaults. The task force sailed in relative safety until the attack on ‘HMS Sheffield’ put the war into perspective.
In total over 100 ships made up the Task Force – 46 were chartered or requisitioned merchant ships. The most famous merchant ship lost in the war was the ‘Atlantic Conveyor’, which was hit by an Exocet missile. She carried Chinook helicopters that were assigned to carry heavy weaponry around the island. These were lost and the task was to fall to the ubiquitous Sea King helicopters.
In San Carlos Bay many ships from the Task Force fell prey to Argentine bombs though many survived despite being hit. However, the ‘Ardent’, ‘Antelope’ and ‘Coventry’ were lost – a sign of just how vulnerable the Task Force was in the bay. The larger ships stayed out of San Carlos. If a carrier from the Task Force had been hit, it would have been disastrous. As it was, the government ordered that when the ‘Sir Tristram’ and ‘Sir Galahad’ moved men mainly from the Welsh Guards to Fitzroy/Bluff Cove, they were to do so without a naval escort. Both ships were easy targets for skilled pilots and it is generally accepted that the Argentine Air Force had many brave and skilful pilots in it.