San Carlos and the nearby Port San Carlos are small settlements on the shores of Falkland Sound where during the 1982 Falklands War
troops made their first landings to commence the land war in their effort to retake the Falkland Islands
. Today, San Carlos is the site of the main British war cemetery and also has a small but good war museum.
More background info:
For a general overview of the conflict see the separate entry for the Falklands War
The battle of San Carlos, which lasted from 21 May to ca. 25 May, was one of the crucial parts of the British task force's endeavour to retake the Falkland Islands
, which had occupied the archipelago on 2 April.
The Argentines had few defences set up in the San Carlos area as they did not consider it suitable for a landing, and so had concentrated their forces around Stanley
and in Goose Green
. However, the British chose San Carlos for their first bridgehead precisely because of the distance from Stanley (so that no rapid Argentine reaction could be launched on land) and because the terrain around the bay safeguarded the landing and support vessels from Exocet
However, aerial attacks by the Argentine Air Force were expected and they did indeed come. So much so that the bay of San Carlos became known as "bomb alley". The Argentine fighters managed to attack British ships on several occasions, and sank two frigates, HMS Ardent
and HMS Antelope
, as well as the destroyer HMS Coventry
(the latter out near Pebble Island – see under Falklands
). Moreover they damaged one of the key cargo ships, the Atlantic Conveyor
, causing the loss of vital supplies and, in particular, much needed heavy-lift Chinook
The Argentines, in turn, lost several aircraft in the process, including those whose crash sites
and wreck remains you can still see on battlefield tours from Port Howard
For the British, the losses could have been even more disastrous: many of the bombs that the Argentines managed to get onto target did not explode (and instead had to be carefully defused and disposed of). This is said to have been due to a mis-callibrated bomb-retarding mechanism, which was required because of the low altitude that the aerial attacks had to be performed at. But it turned out that many bombs were released at too low a level so that their fuses didn't have the time to arm the bombs. This was disclosed by the BBC reporting on the war. The broadcasters were later criticized for this, as the Argentinians must have picked up this hint and then changed their bomb-retarding devices to overcome the problem of so many unexploded bombs.
On balance, however, despite the severe British losses at sea and in the air, on the ground the landing operations were a great success for the British. Several thousand troops were now deployed on East Falkland, together with anti-aircraft missiles and other equipment, and ready to be put into action. (Though the loss of transport helicopters meant that the troops had to move on towards their main targets by foot.)
Before the march on the capital Stanley
was started, it was decided to first take out the Argentine garrison stationed at Goose Green. This was partly to avert any two-front engagement, but it was also for psychological reasons: after all the disastrous events of the previous days making shocking headlines back home, a success story was badly needed. So one of the battalions that had landed at San Carlos, 2 Para, was dispatched towards Darwin & Goose Green
... read that separate entry for more on the (in)famous Battle of Goose Green.
The landing sites at San Carlos were also used again later in the war to get more reinforcements and supplies on land.
Today, it's a rather sleepy, remote corner and without its significant connections with the 1982 war would hardly be on any tourist's itinerary. But for the serious battlefield tourist in the Falklands
it's a must-see.
What there is to see: two things, mainly: the official British war cemetery & memorial and the small war museum in San Carlos.
The Commonwealth war cemetery at San Carlos as such is actually relatively small, containing only 14 graves (most of the British fallen were repatriated to Britain
). One of them is that of Lieutenant-Colonel "H" Jones, the commander of 2 Para who fell during the battle of Goose Green (cf. the memorial at the site where he died in the Goose Green & Darwin chapter
). Several of the graves are adorned with little mementos left there by return-visiting war veterans.
Given the small number of actual graves, however, the main character of the site is primarily that of a memorial monument, really. This character is also underscored by the large memorial plaques at the rear of the circular wall that encloses the area (so it resembles the kind of sheep corrals that used to be typical landmarks in the Falklands – cf. Darwin
). The inscription also specifically honours those who died at sea in the sinking of Navy and auxiliary ships lost during the conflict – i.e. those who have no graves on land at all.
There's a flagpole flying the Union Jack at the memorial too. Were it located inside the war cemetery that would have constituted a violation of the convention that no national flags may be displayed at war cemeteries. Furthermore, this flagpole had been here before the war cemetery was constructed. In fact it was the first flagpole to fly the Union Jack again in the Falklands during the retaking of the islands by the British (see above
and Falklands War
The war museum of San Carlos is located in a small building right in the settlement. It consists of two rooms, only one of which is actually the war museum. The other room features a general historical exhibition about San Carlos and "Camp" life in general. While not of primary interest from a dark tourism perspective it is still worth a look for some interesting exhibits (including an old commode!).
The war museum part contains some fairly impressive artefacts, such as a drill model of a Rapier SAM (surface-to-air missile), some bits of wreckage of shot-down planes, various landmines and their packaging, machine guns and other such military objects. In a corner stands a full-size dummy in fatigues and a backpack to which a small Union Jack flag is attached. This is clearly a tribute to "yomping" and a reference to one of the most iconic photographs taken during the conflict: that of a group of soldiers on their march towards Stanley (= "a yomp" in their own banter vocabulary).
On the walls are also some text panels, drawings, a map of the battlefields' topography and several photos from the battle, including of the sinking of HMS Ardent
. On the whole, the museum is almost on a par with the war museum in Port Howard
, quality-wise. What it lacks in the number of authentic artefacts, it compensates for by more textual information and images (which are in comparatively short supply at the Port Howard equivalent).
Other than the museum and war cemetery/memorial there are said to be a few further crashed plane wrecks in the area, but seeing these was not part of the tour that I was on. I was only told about the existence of these wreck sites by Patrick Watts (see under Stanley and environs
), who has been to these sites (also on tours for other clients). But he already reckoned that our guide from Darwin would probably not know how to find their very remote locations. Never mind, they would probably have been similar sights to those plane crash sites
that did form part of the battlefield tour I went on from Port Howard
. So I didn't feel I really missed out too much by not seeing more such wrecks.
The only other points of interest where we stopped en route between San Carlos and Darwin & Goose Green
were at the top of the slope that 2 Para had to climb during their approach on Goose Green from San Carlos. Here a few remnants of Argentine positions could be seen, as well as a British Rapier
SAM case lying open in a field. But these were really more part of the Goose Green battlefield tour ...
Finally, while at San Carlos simply stare out across the bay to make out the distant buoy that marks the spot where HMS Ardent
sank ... but the submerged wreck itself is of course invisible and also out of bounds to any divers – as it has the status of a protected site (cf. Fitzroy
on the coast of a bay (San Carlos Water) off Falkland Sound on the East Falkland
shores, some 70-80 miles (110-120 km) by road from Stanley
Access and costs:
best as part of a pre-booked battlefield tour from Darwin & Goose Green
as a package; not cheap that way, though.
in theory you could
go to San Carlos independently, by hire car – the British war cemetery is accessible at all times and the war museum should be open during the day too (and there's no admission charge). But doing it as part of a battlefield tour will give you a lot more information. When I went to the Falklands
I visited San Carlos as part of an all-day battlefield tour from Darwin & Goose Green
, and the guide's elaborate narrative certainly brought San Carlos to life and put things into the wider context of the British landings and preparations for the battles on land. The cost of this tour was ｣180. You have to add to this the full-board accommodation cost of staying at Darwin House, of course (at the time I visited that was ｣187 per night for a double room, full board).
What day-return tours from Stanley
may cost, I cannot say. You'd have to contact the operators/private guides directly to get a quote. But given what I had to pay (｣250) for the tour to Fitzroy
which doubled up as a transfer from Stanley to Darwin, I cannot imagine that return tours from/to Stanley could be a cheaper alternative to doing the tour from Darwin House.
Any such tours must be pre-arranged in any case – like virtually everything in the Falklands
when getting there from Darwin & Goose Green
about one to two hours or so plus driving time, which was a bit under an hour (longer, over two hours, when coming all the way from Stanley
) and included a few stops at other sites relevant to the battles in these parts, so it took a half day in total.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The nearest point of special interest to dark/battlefield tourists is Goose Green, in fact the battlefield tour from Darwin that I went on included San Carlos and Goose Green & Darwin
in one whole-day tour. There are also day-return tours available from Stanley
, but these would require longer driving times (en route you could also stop by Fitzroy
Across the waters of Falkland Sound on the shores opposite San Carlos lies Port Howard
on West Falkland, but to get there you'd either have to have a (hired) vehicle of your own and use the ferry from East Falkland or (more likely) you'd have to fly – typically from Stanley, or, if going there straight after arrival on the Falklands, from RAF Mount Pleasant – see under Falkland Islands
Much, much further afield, namely in Britain
, there is now a partial replica of the San Carlos war cemetery/memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum
in Staffordshire. It was inaugurated on the 30th anniversary of the landings at San Carlos in 2012.
At San Carlos itself there isn't much to see apart from the rather forlorn-looking settlement itself, its desolate environs, and the old pier protruding out into the bay. You can see the rails on the pier and on land which at the time were used for carting cargo on rail trolleys.