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On this day in history – 8th June 1982: Fitzroy and the Bluff Cove disaster

On the morning of 8th June 1982, British forces, under the command of Major General Jeremy Moore were preparing to launch a full-scale assault on the Falkland Islands’ capital, Stanley. 

Members of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had occupied Fitzroy and Bluff Cove and the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards and 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, were tasked to support them. But they had a logistical problem.

After the sinking of the transport vessel, ATLANTIC CONVEYOR, there was only one heavy lift helicopter available to move troops and equipment, so the decision was taken that the reinforcements and their supplies would be transported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships SIR TRISTRAM and SIR GALAHAD, which would drop them in Bluff Cove from where they would travel the 27 kms (16.7 miles) to Stanley by foot. Instead, both ships dropped anchor in Fitzroy Sound, five miles short of their destination.

The day went badly wrong at around 1400hrs on the 8th of June when five A-4 fighter-bombers, each loaded with 500lb bombs, attacked the two transports. GALAHAD still had Welsh Guards on board, who had refused to disembark. Argentine commandos, positioned on Mount Harriet, had called in air strikes from the Argentine mainland when they saw the ships arrive and start unloading.

SIR GALAHAD was struck by three bombs from a Skyhawk flown by Lt Carlos Cachon. SIR TRISTRAM was hit by two bombs released by flight leader Lt Daniel Galvez. The explosions and subsequent fires killed 48 on SIR GALAHAD, of whom 32 to were Welsh Guards. On SIR TRISTRAM two crewmen from Hong Kong were killed.

In a co-ordinated second attack, five Argentinian Dagger fighter-bombers dropped four 1,000lb bombs on the frigate, HMS PLYMOUTH, which was passing through Falkland Sound near Fanning Head. She suffered severe damage, with five of her crew injured, even though all four bombs failed to explode. She was forced to seek refuge in San Carlos Water, which had been dubbed “Bomb Alley” by British forces.

In a third connected attack, just before 17:00 hrs a second wave of four A-4 Skyhawks attacked and sank the Landing Craft Utility (LCU) FOXTROT-4 in Choiseil Sound, 37.4 km (23.2 miles) from Bluff Cove. The LCU had been transporting vehicles and comms equipment and nine soldiers from 5th Infantry Brigade’s headquarters unit.  Four Royal Marines and two sailors on FOXTROT-4 were killed.  British Sea Harriers shot down three Skyhawks, killing their pilots.  The fourth attacker, flown by 1st Lt Hector Sanchez, was combat damaged but made it back to its Argentinian base.

In all, 56 British service personnel were killed and 150 wounded in the three aerial strikes. They resulted in the greatest loss of life amongst British forces in a single incident since the Second World War and accounted for a fifth of all British fatalities in the entire Falklands War.

SIR GALAHAD was damaged beyond repair and was scuttled with torpedoes from HMS ONYX 13 days later, on 21st June 1982 and declared a war grave. The disabled SIR TRISTRAM was returned to the UK, where she was repaired. HMS PLYMOUTH received ‘battlefield’ repairs and returned to front line duty six days later. The attacks delayed the British advance on Stanley by two days and the Argentine forces occupying the Falklands surrendered on 14th June 1982. HMS PLYMOUTH was the first Royal Navy warship to enter Stanley harbour three days later, on the 17th June.

The wreckage of the LCU FOXTROT-4, the last Royal Navy vessel to be lost in the six-week war, has never been found. She was one of four landing craft assigned to HMS FEARLESS, to be used by 4 Assault Squadron Royal Marines, who were involved in the fighting from the moment the campaign to re-take the islands began on 21st May 1982.  FOXTROT-4’s coxswain, Colour Sergeant Brian Johnston RM, had already been awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his part in rescuing sailors from HMS ANTELOPE after an unexploded Argentine detonated during the night of 23/24th May 1982.   He had been ordered to stay away from the burning frigate but ignored the instruction and continued off-loading survivors.

Johnston never lived to collect his medal. On 8th June he was at the helm of FOXTROT-4, slowly ferrying Land Rovers from Goose Green near the mouth of Choiseul Sound about four miles southeast of Bertha’s Beach on East Falkland, when she was hit by the 500lb bomb dropped by the Skyhawk. It destroyed the wheelhouse and stern section of the boat but did not sink it. Futile efforts were made to tow the stricken craft ashore but with darkness closing in she had to be cut adrift.  The following morning FOXTROT-4 was nowhere to be seen and remains unlocated to this day, despite a number of attempts to find her.

A memorial for the British servicemen killed on 8th June 1982 was erected at Fitzroy.  A separate memorial to the members of FOXTROT-4 was erected on Bertha’s Beach.  An official inquiry, held in private after the war, found that what happened at Fitzroy, which became known as the Bluff Cove Tragedy, was not down to “error” but to the “ordinary chances of war”.

An exclusive new FMHT TV archive video reveals commanders and locals reactions to Fitzroy and bluff cove warships tragedy.

Falklands War Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, UK. Photo by Harry Mitchell