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.
During the night of the 21st of May, the British Amphibious Task Group landed troops at San Carlos Water in an operation that has been described as the one of the most successful amphibious landings in history. This area, known as Bomb Alley by the British troops, became the target for repeated air attacks by low flying Argentine jets. Now with British forces on the ground, the Argentine air force began night attacks by Canberra bombers which continued throughout the rest of the war.
The frigate HMS Ardent with the destroyer Yarmouth, both supporting the landings, was bombarding the Argentine airstrip at Goose Green when she came under attack from a Skyhawk who dropped two bombs, both of which failed to explode. The two ships were ordered to the Northwest to “split air attacks from the south” when a group of three Skyhawks flew in from the west, over the island and attacked from the Northeast with cannon fire and bombs. The ship’s Seacat missiles failed to lock on to the attackers who flew in at an angle that was also beyond the arc of the 4.5 inch gun , leaving only the 20mm cannon to retaliate. Three bombs struck Ardent; two exploding in the hangar deck and the third crashed through the aft auxiliary machine room, but failed to explode. With the hangar area in flames and virtually defenceless, but with the ship still under control she was ordered to retreat North, but at 18.00 hours, five Skyhawks found her and dropped a number of free fall and retard bombs, some exploding in the port quarter, while some others hit the ship but failed to detonate. These bombs, together with others that exploded in the water nearby, battered Ardent causing many casualties among the damage control teams. With fires now out of control, the ship was abandoned and burned throughout the night until she finally sank at 6.30 the next morning. 22 crew died in the attacks.
The task force continued to be attacked and now it was the turn of the frigate Argonaut, who in concert with other warships was protecting the San Carlos Water landing. An Aeromachi MB-339 caused some damage including to her radar. A second attack by Skyhawks scored two hits, but again, neither exploded. HMS Plymouth came to Argonaut’s rescue and towed her out of danger. The two bombs were successfully deactivated.
On the 23rd of May, the frigate Antelope was stationed as air defence at the entrance to San Carlos Water when she came under attack from four A4 Skyhawks. The ship was hit by one 1,000 bomb on the starboard side, but the bomb failed to explode and the aircraft was damaged by small arms fire. A second Skyhawk attacked and was damaged by 20mm cannon fire, causing it to crash through the mainmast, killing the pilot. His bomb penetrated the hull but again failed to explode. The ship moved to more sheltered waters and EOD specialists from the Royal Engineers came aboard to try and defuse the bombs. During the attempt, one bomb exploded and killed Staff Sergeant Prescott and severely injured the other members of the EOD team. The ship was ripped apart from the waterline upwards, starting major fires and the order was given to abandon ship. Shortly after the last man had left, the magazines exploded. These explosions continued throughout the night. By dawn the ship, with a broken hull and melted superstructure, finally sank.
Further attacks the following day caused damage to the Landing Ships, Sir Galahad,, Sir Bedivere and Sir Tristam, with Argentine bombs again failing to explode.
Attacks continued and on the 25th of May, the merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor was hit by two Exocet missiles, penetrating her hull and causing massive fires, killing the captain and 11 of his crew. This ship carried the task force’s helicopters, needed for the land battle and their loss meant that British troops would have to march across the island to recapture Stanley.
Speaking later of the failure of Argentine bombs to detonate, Lord Craig, retired Marshal of the Royal Air Force, remarked that “six better fuses and we would have lost”. As it transpired however, the fault was not in the fuse but in the way they were deployed. To avoid the high concentration of British air defences, Argentine pilots were releasing their bombs from very low altitudes, giving the fuses too little time to arm before impact. The BBC reportedly broadcast this information and was severely criticised by the task force Commander, Admiral Woodward, who blamed them for alerting the Argentines to the supposed fault. Interestingly, Colonel H.Jones, commanding the Paras on Falkland, had also accused the BBC of giving information to the enemy when reporting on the capture of Goose Green before it actually happened and had threatened to bring charges of treason against the Board of Governors. Sadly he was killed at Goose Green before he could pursue the charge.
For whatever reason, the Argentine air force, shortly after, modified the bombs to detonate at low level. In total thirteen bombs had struck the task force without exploding and twenty two planes had been lost in the attempt.
On the 30th of May, the Argentines fired their last air launched Exocet at the carrier HMS Invincible, but it was shot down by the 4.5 inch gun of the frigate Avenger.
Further troop landings were made on the 8th of June at Bluff Cove and the landing ships Galahad and Tristram came under attack from the air. Both ships were damaged, but Galahad received three hits which started huge fires, detonating the ammunition store and killing some 48 of the Welsh Guards and sailors on board and wounding 115 more. The ship was abandoned and the wreck was later towed out to deep water by the submarine HMS Onyx where it finally sank. On the same day the frigate Plymouth was hit by four bombs and cannon fire from Dagger aircraft. One bomb hit aft, detonating one of the ships depth charges, one went clean through the funnel and two damaged her anti submarine mortars. All the bombs failed to explode, but extensive damage was caused.
A few days later the destroyer Glamorgan was hit by an Exocet missile that had been taken from the Argentine frigate Segul and fitted to a mobile launcher. The missile struck Glamorgan a glancing blow, skidded across the rear deck and exploded, blowing a ten foot by fifteen foot hole in the deck. The blast travelled upwards and destroyed the ship’s Wessex helicopter causing a large fire. Thirteen members of the crew were killed in the attack, but the fire was eventually brought under control.
The land battle to retake Port Stanley is now the stuff of history. The recapture of the islands was eventually achieved, albeit with a heavy cost in human lives and the union flag once again flew over the Falklands. The material cost had also been high however, with British losses of two destroyers, two frigates, two landing craft and one container ship, together with twenty helicopters and ten fighters. The Argentines lost a cruiser, a submarine, four cargo vessels, two patrol boats, together with twenty five helicopters and seventy five assorted fixed wing aircraft.
Once again, if only for a short time, Britannia did truly rule the waves.