Five Days on San Carlos Water

San Carlos Water was the site of a major battle between aircraft and ships that lasted for five days in 1982 as a British amphibious force landed to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders.

For the first time in history, a modern surface fleet armed with surface to air missiles and with air cover backed up by STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) carrier based aircraft, defended against full scale air strikes. The British fleet sustained severe losses and damage, but were able to land and consolidate the beachhead.

On the night of the 21st of May 1982, and under cover of darkness, the British Task force entered San Carlos Water, an inlet on Falklands Sound, the strait between East and West Falkland and began unloading troops and equipment. The location was chosen as the terrain would protect the landing force from attack by Exocets or submarines and was also far enough distant from Stanley to prevent a rapid reaction from the troops based there.

By the end of the first day, over 3,000 men and over 1,000 tons of supplies and equipment had been landed. Rapier missile systems and 105mm howitzers were also brought ashore. A section of the Argentine 25th Infantry Regiment was based on nearby Fanning Head and spotted the landings at around 2.50am. They immediately opened fire with 81mm mortars and 105mm recoilless rifles.

They were soon engaged by British naval gunfire and a 25 man SBS team and were forced to retreat, losing their communications kit and equipment, but managing to shoot down two Gazelle helicopters with small arms fire. Their leader, 1st Lt Carlos Esteban, eventually managed to contact the Goose Green garrison and tell them of the landings at 8.22 the same morning.

The Argentine High Command based in Stanley initially considered that a landing at San Carlos was not feasible and dismissed the operation as a diversion. Finally, at 08.45am, a Pucara ground attack jet based on the islands was despatched to San Carlos on a reconnaissance flight. The pilot, Lieutenant Guillermo Crippa made two passes over the invasion fleet, strafing HMS Argonaut and the troopship Canberra with guns and rockets. Troops on Canberra had lashed 50 cal machine guns to the cruise liner’s rails and returned fire on the aircraft which was eventually shot down by one of the escorting frigates.

Due to the short length of runway at Port Stanley, the Argentineans could not base their fastest jets on the islands and had to fly all major sorties from the mainland. This seriously reduced the time pilots could spend over the islands and contributed to the eventual failure of their attacks.

Fifteen minutes later, three Pucara ground attack aircraft were launched from the grass strip at Goose Green. Their leader, Captain Benitez was immediately engaged by the guns of HMS Ardent, but it was a Stinger missile fired by an SAS section patrolling the hills above the bay that brought the Pucara down. Captain Benitez ejected and eventually made his way back to his base.

The other two Pucaras were intercepted by Sea Harriers, led by Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward who shot one down and damaged the other which limped back to Goose Green. Five minutes later, four Mirage 111 jets appeared north of the islands in an attempt to draw the British fighters away from the landing area to mask the arrival of a flight of 10 Mirage 5 Dagger aircraft who immediately swooped in to attack. These aircraft did not have air refuelling capacity and even with two 550 gallon drop tanks, were at the very limit of their range. The first two Daggers made for HMS Antrim and dropped their 1,000 lb bombs which failed to explode. They followed by strafing the ship with 30mm cannon fire before peeling away. Throughout the battle a total of thirteen of the total bombs dropped failed to explode. This was later discovered to be caused by faulty fuse setting and certainly saved a number of the British fleet from destruction.

Three more Daggers swept in directing their attention to HMS Argonaut and HMS Broadsword. The first, piloted by Lieutenant Bean was hit and destroyed by a Sea Wolf missile from Broadsword who also damaged the second while the third closed in to attack, but was forced away by the intensity of the anti-aircraft fire. For the troops on the ground the attacks were frustrating and they responded by firing at the aircraft with machine guns, rockets and even rifles. One Dagger was reported to have been brought down by machine gun fire by 3 Para on Fanning Head. HMS Brilliant then came under attack from the next wave of Daggers, but had a lucky escape when the planes bombs “hung up” and could not be released.

HMS Antrim was the next to come under attack. The Dagger released its bombs which again failed to explode although one did damage the stern of the destroyer. As the Daggers turned away, Sea Harriers launched Sidewinder missiles at them but they fell short. After a lull of about an hour, a flight of four A4 Skyhawks descended in attack formation, but were intercepted by the ever watchful Sea Harriers who shot two down with Sidewinders as the others retreated.

Two more Skyhawks then pounced on HMS Ardent, who was on the “gun line” to the south of the screen of fighting ships protecting the landing when she was straddled by two bombs which did not explode. By now the situation was chaotic with gunfire, smoke, explosions and weaving and darting aircraft. The ships had been under heavy attack for hours and it was a miracle that they were still afloat.

Shortly after 1.30 in the afternoon, Argonaut was struck by two 1,000 lb bomb which again failed to explode, but one crashed through her Sea Cat missile magazine, detonating two missiles and causing heavy damage.

Four fresh Daggers then arrived from the mainland and began an attack on HMS Ardent. The attack was broken up by Harriers who shot one Dagger down as the others escaped. For the next hour the attacks continued without respite, but by now the Harrier pilots were beginning to recognise the pattern of the Dagger approach corridor and Fleet Air Arm pilots Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward and Lieutenant Thomas lay in wait for the next arrivals. As soon as the next three Daggers appeared, they were bounced by the Harriers. The Daggers jettisoned their bombs and drop tanks in an effort to escape but were hit by Sidewinders and destroyed.

Just after 3.15, three Skyhawks led by Captain Philipi, managed to evade the Harriers and struck Ardent with several 500 lb bombs and raked the ship with cannon fire. As they attempted to escape they were attacked by the Harriers who shot down Philipi and his wingman Lieutenant Marquez. Philipi managed to bale out but Marquez was killed. The third Skyhawk, piloted by Lieutenant Arca, was damaged and he ditched in the sea, but was bravely rescued from the water by Captain Jorge “Picho” Svendsen in a Huey helicopter.

The raids continued until 5.15 with no further damage. HMS Ardent was then ordered to the north west to “split air attacks from the south”, when three enemy aircraft crossed Falkland sound from the west and then turned left in order to attack from the north east. Ardent’s Sea Cat missile system was unable to lock on to the planes in time and her 4.5 inch gun was unable to bear on the attackers. She was struck by cannon fire and three bombs, two of which exploded in the hangar area, destroying the Westland Lynx helicopter and blowing the Sea Cat launcher some 80 feet in the air before crashing back on the deck and killing a number of her crew. The third bomb crashed through the aft machinery room, but failed to explode although it severely damaged the aft switchboard which disabled the ship’s main gun.

Ardent was still in control of her engines and steering, but was virtually defenceless. She was ordered to head north towards Port San Carlos, but at 18.00, five Skyhawks attacked the frigate and dropped a number of free fall and retard bombs. A pattern of bombs exploded on the port quarter and a number of others penetrated the hull, but failed to explode. Other bombs fell close to the ship, battering the hull and causing some flooding. Much of the upperworks were shattered with many of the crew killed or injured.

Ardent limped in to Grantham Sound with the fires now out of control and the ship listing heavily. Her Commander, Alan West, gave the order to abandon ship and HMS Yarmouth came alongside to take off survivors and transfer them to Canberra. By now it was known that 22 men had lost their lives. Ardent burned throughout the night with the occasional explosion until she sank at 6.30 the next day.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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