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Tragedy at Bluff Cove – anniversary of the bombing of RFA Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram

RFA Sir Galahad burns after being hit by Argentine bombs
8 June 2021
There was no greater British loss of life throughout the Falklands conflict than the attack on RFA support ships Sir Galahad and Tristram, bombed on this day in 1982 by Argentine jets.

The struggle to liberate the islands was entering its closing stages with British forces closing in on the capital Stanley.

To support that final assault, the two RFAs were due to deliver troops to Bluff Cove – not 15 miles from Stanley.

The ships dropped anchor five miles short of their destination and began to offload instead at Fitzroy Sound.

Aboard Sir Galahad, the Welsh Guards refused to leave. They’d been rather messed around in the campaign to date. They had been told they would be delivered to Bluff Cove – five miles from Fitzroy – and delivered to Bluff Cove they would be, despite the protestations of Royal Marines.

The ships’ presence at Fitzroy had already been spotted by Argentine forces. On the South American mainland, Skyhawk jets from Grupo 5 de Caza – 5th Fighter Group – better known as Los Halcones, ‘The Hawks’, lifted off to intercept, each carrying three 250kg bombs on a round-trip to the Falklands of almost 1,000 miles.

Leading the final assault was Carlos Cachón, told by his commander to “take charge of the formation and lead it to glory”.

Two of his bombs – plus one from a wingman – hit Sir Galahad, exploding in the tank deck, galley and engine room, while Sir Tristram was strafed, killing two RFA crew, and hit by a single bomb, which failed to detonate initially.

Bits were flying everywhere and I was very aware of the fact that any second the Galahad could blow itself to pieces. After one big blast I closed my little window thinking: ‘That will protect me.'

Lieutenant Philip Sheldon, 825 Naval Air Squadron

The Royal Marine who had urged the Welsh Guards to disembark, Major Ewen Southby-Tailyour, was ashore, enjoying the hospitality of a liberated Falklands family, the Stewarts, in their home overlooking the cove.

And then “the windows shook, everyone turned,” he recalled.

“The sound of fast jets died and explosions rattled the loose fittings. We watched silently as the first wisps of smoke and flames burst into something altogether more menacing and sinister. We knew instantly what we had just witnessed.”

Aboard Sir Galahad, Third Officer Andy Gudgeon heard – and felt – two distinct explosions. “The deck seemed to come up and the door caved in. I was dazed and made my way out through the surgery, crawling around.”

Sea Kings of 825 Naval Air Squadron were the first on the scene. For flight commander Lt Philip Sheldon, it was “not a difficult flying exercise but I’d never been so close to flames before”.

The helicopter would rock and judder sporadically when struck by shockwaves from ammunition ‘cooking off’ in Sir Galahad’s hold.

“Bits were flying everywhere and I was very aware of the fact that any second the Galahad could blow itself to pieces. After one big blast I closed my little window thinking: ‘That will protect me.’”

Major Southby-Tailyour dashed down to a casualty clearing station, grabbed one end of a stretcher and with comrades began carrying casualties.

“Chinese crewmen wandered across the green in trances, wrapped in blankets,” the major recalled.

“Horribly mutilated bodies – all alive that I saw, and I carried many of them – lifted with infinite care across the settlement.”

Five RFA crewmen paid the ultimate price that June day, plus 55 Welsh Guards. The final victim was Sir Galahad herself. It was more than a week before the fires finally died out.

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