8 June 1982 was the blackest day for the British task force in the Falklands War
, when two landing ships at Fitzroy on East Falkland
were hit by Argentine air attacks, causing the single worst casualties in any one day of the war for Britain
. Worse still, the losses could have been avoided or minimized had there not been a string of unfortunate decisions, delays, an unclear line of command, SAM missile system failures and, not least, the skill of the Argentine
Air Force pilots.
Today there are several memorials dotted around a cove near the settlement of Fitzroy and some items displayed in the village hall.
On 21 to 25 May 1982 the British had successfully landed the first batch of troops at San Carlos
and by the end of the month one battalion of the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) had won the first crucial land battle of the war at Goose Green
. More reinforcements were landed at San Carlos and the march on Stanley as the final decisive push to overall victory was about to begin.
So a week into June, things had actually been going well for the British. But that was about to change dramatically and tragically on 8 June. More ground troops were landed on the eastern side of East Falkland, and some were already assembled at Bluff Cove. They were supposed to be joined by yet more battalions of Scots and Welsh Guards transported there together with their equipment by the landing ships RFA Sir Tristram
and RFA Sir Galahad
. This had partly been necessitated by the fact that the heavy-lift helicopters had been lost in the attack on the transport vessel Atlantic Conveyor
at San Carlos
Originally RFA Sir Galahad
was supposed to go straight to Bluff Cove, but due to delays and possibly some confusion it ended up at Fitzroy instead. Fitzroy is a small settlement on a narrow bay called Port Pleasant (ironically) which had already been reached by the 2 Paras who had taken Goose Green
almost two weeks earlier.
The landing ships had no naval escorts (possibly to prevent further losses of ships as had occurred at San Carlos during the initial landings) and only some Rapier SAM batteries were deployed for defence. However, later, just when they were needed most, their electronic systems jammed.
The unloading of the ships took a long time, and ammunition, field hospital supplies and other gear was taken ashore first, even though it was argued by a Royal Marine officer that getting the men off first would should have been the first priority. Apparently some arguments about proceedings, ranks, and authority disrupted the line of command at this stage to some degree.
Having sat in the bay for hours in broad daylight with no naval escort on a clear day perfect for air strikes, the ships proved too tempting a target for the Argentine Air Force (who had observers in the hills above Fitzroy reporting back to their command). And so the tragedy did come:
Suddenly in the early afternoon three waves of Argentine
fighter jets (mostly A-4 Skyhawks
, though a few Mirages
were involved too) approached and released their bombs. Several found their target, including a direct hit on the ammunition cargo hold of RFA Sir Galahad
. Fires broke out immediately filling the ship and the air around it with thick black smoke. The captain gave orders to abandon ship and rescue helicopters came in trying to winch off the injured (including some daringly close hovering manoeuvres). These scenes were filmed by TV crews and became amongst the most enduring images of the whole war.
RFA Sir Tristram was hit by a bomb as well but this caused comparatively less damage, though two seamen (of Chinese origin) were killed in that attack too. A landing craft en route to Bluff Cove was later attacked in yet another Argentine air strike. Hit midship it sunk with all men on board.
But by far the worst casualties were suffered by the Welsh Guards on board RFA Sir Galahad. In the end there were 56 dead and about a 150 injured, many of them seriously.
One Welsh Guardsman, Simon Weston, who suffered third-degree burns to 46% of his body, including his face, later became one of the most well-known veterans of the Falklands War
, as he frequently appeared in the media and launched various campaigns and appeals, some of them controversial (e.g. for a more realistic public portrayal of the realities of war, including life-changing injuries). Remarkably he also got to know and even befriend the Argentine pilot who in 1982 had dropped the bomb on the Sir Galahad
that left Weston so scarred. A remarkable instance of reconciliation, it was still seen as controversial by some.
But back to the Falklands and 1982. The Argentine Air Force pilots had again proved their skill, but they suffered losses too: three of the attacking Skyhawks
were shot down after the attacks and the pilots killed, by British Harriers
. But the raids on Fitzroy were clearly one of Argentina
's biggest "successes" in the Falklands War
. Even though in the end that too achieved nothing for the overall outcome.
The worst-hit ship, RFA Sir Galahad
, had been damaged beyond repair and was therefore later towed out to sea and scuttled (actually sunk by a British submarine). It is now an officially protected war grave (like the wreck of HMS Ardent
near San Carlos
), RFA Sir Tristram
, on the other hand, though damaged was still usable and was later towed into Stanley
harbour and converted into a floating barracks for troops before returning home for a complete overhaul and refit.
Note that the disastrous episode at Fitzroy is often referred to as the "Bluff Cove Disaster" but the air attacks actually happened at Port Pleasant just outside Fitzroy. Bluff Cove, also already reached by 2 Para, was the place where the Welsh Guards and their landing ship were supposed to go but didn't.
Today Bluff Cove is one of the Falklands' prime penguin watching locations. It's several miles north of Fitzroy at an altogether different bay around a long headland. So do not get the two places confused too. At Bluff Cove, only accessible for cruise ship excursions anyway, there is hardly anything related to the 1982 war.
At Fitzroy, on the other hand, a cluster of war memorials, dotted around the little bay where most of the evacuees from the two stricken ships came on land in lifeboats and rafts, now serves as one of the key places of remembrance of the 1982 conflict.
Fitzroy settlement continues to function as a working farm. It is, by the way, named after Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle
, who in 1833 visited the islands, with Charles Darwin on board – see Darwin & Goose Green
– yet another historic connection to that year (see Falklands sovereignty dispute
What there is to see: comparatively little, actually. A short drive beyond Fitzroy settlement, through a gate marked "memorials ahead", you find a small cove, almost perfectly circular in shape (a bit like the Greek letter omega). Here various memorials have been erected.
At the near, western end of the cove stands a white stone obelisk whose inscription dedicates it to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary seamen killed aboard the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, including the Chinese ones – hence the addition of some Chinese characters at the foot of the plinth.
At the far, eastern end of the cove towers the separate Welsh Guards monument, incorporating a Celtic cross (fittingly) and listing the names of all those Guardsmen who lost their lives here.
Above the centre of the curve of the bay is a cluster of monuments, including another, older one dedicated to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service aboard the two landing ships. Two anchors flank the central stone (probably just symbolic ones – they look too small to be genuinely from ships that size). Next to this are yet more memorial cairns and crosses for specific groups of servicemen and individuals. Lots of little mementos left by visitors and veterans can be found at these monuments, including some odd surprises ... (Mickey Mouse toys, for instance).
Back at Fitzroy settlement you can see the pier bridge used back in 1982 for the unloading of landing craft. Today it's quite dilapidated and rickety, so you should not walk onto it.
In the village you should also pop into the local community hall. Apart from being a functioning village hall with a bar, rows of chairs and tea and coffee cups and pots, its walls are hung with various references to the 1982 war. These include photos of the ships ablaze and of the rescue efforts, maps outlining the movements during the conflict, various flags, including, naturally, also Welsh and Scottish ones, and insignia of the military units involved. There are almost no artefacts here, except a cluster of bomb shrapnel. So it is not really a museum
in the way the equivalent places at San Carlos
or Port Howard
(see war museum
The other location related to this episode of the 1982 conflict, Bluff Cove, can only be accessed as an organized excursion that is unfortunately only available to visiting cruise ship passengers. So I could not go there myself. It's primarily a penguin watching destination anyway (and I had much better at Sea Lion Island and Volunteer Point – see under Falklands
– so I don't think I massively missed out).
However, since 2009 a small museum has been added to the Sea Cabbage Café at the site. It allegedly contains some references to the 1982 war too, which I obviously cannot corroborate, but is said to be primarily about local "Camp" life and also functions as a showcase for local arts and crafts (to milk the cruise ship tourists).
On my tour of Fitzroy, which was also a transfer from Stanley
, we instead continued on a very rough, hours-long 4x4 drive along the coastal south of Fitzroy, to get to Kelp Point. Here you can see some elephant seals basking on the shoreline. At the south-western end of the headland, called Whale Point, there is also a shipwreck that is well worth a look.
It is the wreck of the St Mary – a ca. 2000 ton American ship that got stranded here in 1891. Though it has eroded away quite significantly in the meantime, its remains still have a very aesthetic aura. Note the massive wooden knees (formerly) supporting the hull, or the clusters of big rusty bolts. But watch your step, as the kelp on the approach to the wreck can be extremely slippery.
Overall, the excursion to Fitzroy was only really made worthwhile by these extra additions of off-road driving all the way to Whale Point/Kelp Point. The memorials at Fitzroy alone were comparatively humdrum – they are only really a pilgrimage destination, not so much a dark or battlefield tourism destination, due to the lack of authentic relics (except those few bits in the village hall). As a dark tourist you don't really get anywhere near as much out of it as you do on the battlefield tours of Port Howard
, Goose Green
& San Carlos
or Stanley's environs
If you have your own vehicle for driving around independently, then the short detour from the main Stanley-to-Darwin road is certainly worth a short stopover, but think hard before you book a guided excursion to Fitzroy just to see the monuments (unless you have special reason, of course). In my case, Fitzroy was incorporated into a long day drive that ended in Darwin
, so it had a practical merit too – but it was also the most expensive tour I had on the Falklands
(unless you count the flight and overnight stay on Sea Lion Island – which cost significantly more still).
Fitzroy settlement is on the south-east coast of East Falkland
, about 30 miles (45 km) south-west from Stanley
. Bluff Cove is further north and closer to Stanley, while Kelp Point and Whale Point are further south-east.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: Fitzroy is easily accessible by car, Bluff Cove only by cruise ship excursion (expensive), and Kelp Point and Whale Point require a long 4x4 drive with a skilled driver-guide, which is therefore even more expensive.
Fitzroy could in theory be reached on an independent basis quite easily – you just need to have a (hire) car. From Stanley proceed westwards along the road leading to Darwin and Goose Green
. After a good 25 miles (4 km) look out for the signs to Fitzroy and take the track to the left down to the settlement. Continue right through the little village until you come to a gate that says "memorials ahead". Open this gate, drive through, close it again and carry on for a couple hundred yards and you will see the memorials. You are only allowed that far. If you want to continue anywhere else on the land around Fitzroy you have to have the prior permission from the owner. Or be on a guided tour – like I was:
My tour, which incorporated a visit to Fitzroy and transit to Darwin, was with a seasoned part-time guide called Tony Heathman (his main job is that of a farmer at Estancia in the north-west of East Falkland). He stepped in for Derek Pettersson, who put the whole trip together for me (see under Falklands
), but who wasn't available himself on the day after all.
It was, I have to say, an expensive arrangement at ｣250. But of course you have to factor in that Tony then also had to drive all the way back, so it was a very long day of driving, some of it on very tricky terrain requiring the prerequisite skills. So you can't really say it was a disproportionate price. But some dark tourists who do not want to see more than just the Fitzroy memorials could probably get much more affordable arrangements.
Bluff Cove is only accessible on a guided shore excursion offered exclusively to cruise ship passengers. So for almost all dark tourists, including myself, that will not be an option at all. How much they charge for these three-hour tours I don't know, but reviews I read consistently referred to it as expensive ... but then again almost everything on the Falklands
The drive to Fitzroy from Stanley
can take as little as 45 minutes, and you'd normally not need a lot of time at the site either: maybe half an hour each at the memorials and at the village hall.
Adding Whale Point and Kelp Point requires several more hours of slow and very bumpy driving. The organized tours for cruise ship passengers to Bluff Cove are listed as lasting approximately 3 hours return (from Stanley harbour).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Falkland Islands
– nearest to Fitzroy is Stanley, but Goose Green and Darwin are not much further away, so Fitzroy could be slotted in as a stopover between those two points. And San Carlos is also within driving range from all three of these points.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The extension of my tour to take in Kelp Point was already a non-dark addition, as it was primarily for wildlife watching and the scenery. For more such activities and attractions see under Falkland Islands