Much has been written about the heroism and bravery displayed by the British landing forces in the recapture of the Falkland Islands, but there was another war, just as deadly taking place at sea and in the air, that, if lost, could end both Britain’s attempts to recover the islands and her standing as a world power.
The Falklands war began on the 2nd of April 1982, when Argentine forces invaded and occupied the islands of Falkland and South Georgia. In doing so, the Argentine leadership hoped to mobilise the people’s long standing patriotic feelings and historic claim on the islands. It was also hoped that this would divert public opinion away from the country’s economic problems and its contentious military ruling junta.
Admiral Jorge Anaya stated publicly that “United Kingdom forces would never respond militarily”. He could not have been more mistaken. Britain launched a naval task force to engage Argentina’s navy and air force and retake the islands by amphibious assault. This was a formidable undertaking so far from base and with just 34 Harrier aircraft to provide air cover. The U.S navy is on record as stating that, “a successful counter-invasion by the British is a military impossibility” The war, fought for 74 days in arduous conditions, cost the lives of 255 British and 649 Argentines with many more wounded.
The invasion fleet was led by the two carriers, Hermes and Invincible, and was supported by eight destroyers, fifteen frigates, six submarines, supply ships and tankers of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, plus the liners Queen Elizabeth, and Canberra, used as troop carriers and a host of minesweepers, landing ships and merchantmen.
There were three airstrips on the Falklands and of these, only the field at Port Stanley was paved, none of them however, was long enough to land fast jets and the Argentines were forced to launch their main strikes from the mainland, severely reducing “time over target” when they met the British fleet. How different might the outcome have been had they concentrated on extending the Port Stanley runway? When Britain declared a 200 mile exclusion zone around the islands, the Argentines thought that a landing was imminent and on May 1st, sent a strike force of 36 aircraft to attack the fleet. However, only a section of Grupo 6, flying 1A1 Dagger aircraft managed to locate the ships and inflict minor damage to the destroyer Glamorgan and the frigates Arrow and Alacrity. Meanwhile, other Argentine aircraft were intercepted by Sea Harriers from HMS Invincible who shot down a Canberra and a Dagger, others Harriers engaged in a dogfight with 2 Mirage 111s, one of which was destroyed by an AIM-9L Sidewinder and the other damaged. The damaged aircraft made for Stanley, but was shot down in error by Argentine anti aircraft.
These losses persuaded the Argentines to change tactics and use only A4 Skyhawks and Daggers as strike units and the Mirage 111s as decoys to lure away the British Sea Harriers. They later formed a squadron, known as Escuardo Fenix, comprising civilian jets to fly 24 hours a day, simulating strike aircraft preparing to attack the fleet and thus draw away fighter protection from the British ships. On one of these missions a Learjet was shot down and its pilot, Vice Commodore Rodolfo de la Colina was killed, becoming the highest ranking Argentine officer to die in the conflict.
The Argentines also prepared to engage the British fleet by sea and sent two task forces into the area around the exclusion zone. In the north, the carrier, Vienticinco de Mayo with an escort of two British built destroyers and in the south, the cruiser Belgrano, plus two destroyer escorts. The carrier’s aircraft consisted of A4 Skyhawks and S-2E Trackers. On the 1st of May, she attempted to fly off an attack force of Skyhawks, but bad weather prevented a launch.
The Belgrano, the former American light cruiser (USS Phoenix) had no anti submarine capability and her escorts had only marginal ability to track modern nuclear submarines. These two task forces, while not being of the highest standard, still represented a considerable threat to the British fleet operating on a shoestring 8000 miles from base with all the supply problems involved. Should they attack they could wreak havoc with the fleet and the Admiralty ordered the submarines Conqueror and Spartan to locate and track the two task forces. Spartan failed to locate the carrier, but Conqueror detected and began tracking the Belgrano.
Britain had declared that all shipping was liable to be attacked in the exclusion zone, but had also made clear that any Argentine military vessel likely to pose a threat to British operations, would be attacked wherever found and the mere threat of the cruiser with its Exocets and 6 inch guns closing in and firing on the fleet was enough for the Admiralty to order its destruction. On the 2nd of May, Conqueror closed in on Belgrano and fired three Mk 8 torpedoes, two of which struck and the cruiser immediately began to sink, taking with her 323 men with a further 770 being rescued. Rescue operations went on for two days without interference from the British. The sinking caused much controversy, but had the crucial effect of eliminating the Argentine naval threat and the return to port of all of its naval forces where they remained for the duration of the conflict. There is little doubt that, if the carrier had been located, it too would have been sunk and with a far greater loss of life. The Belgrano sinking did however harden the Argentine resolve to continue the conflict.
On the 4th of May, the destroyer HMS Sheffield, together with two others, was ordered forward to provide long range radar and high altitude missile picket for the carriers when she was attacked by a Super Etendard of 2nd Naval Attack Squadron and hit amidships by an Exocet missile, killing 20 crew members and injuring 24 others. She was abandoned with fires burning out of control, finally sinking on the 10th of May.
On the 12th of May, the destroyer HMS Glasgow, in company with the frigate Brilliant was deployed as part of the air defence screening the task force, her Sea Dart long range missiles complementing the Sea Wolf short range missiles on Brilliant, when she was attacked by a group of Skyhawks . Glasgow’s Sea Darts failed to lock on to the attackers, but the Sea Wolfs from Brilliant shot down one Skyhawk while another attacker crashed while trying to evade the missiles. Brilliant was the first Royal Navy ship to fire Sea Wolf in action and downed three Skyhawks during the engagement. When a second wave of Skyhawks attacked, the Sea Wolf system also failed and three bombs were dropped on Glasgow by the plane piloted by Lieutenant Gavazzi of Grupo 5, one of which hit the ship, passing clean through the hull, but failed to explode. He was shot down by friendly fire on his return flight over the islands.