May 12, 2019

The Falklands War Part 14

In early April, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a few desolate rocks in the South Atlantic. The British mobilized their fleet in response. The carriers arrived off the Falklands on May 1st, swiftly defeating the Argentine Air Force. The Argentine Navy tried to interfere the next day, but withdrew after the cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by a submarine. Two days later, the Argentines struck back, sinking the frigate Sheffield with an Exocet missile. Two weeks later, on May 21st, British troops landed at San Carlos Water on the west coast of East Falkland. The Argentine Air Force quickly got wind of this, and launched numerous sorties against the invasion fleet. The morning's score was mostly in favor of the British, with several warships strafed and a single bomb hit, which hadn't gone off,1 in exchange for four attackers shot down. But the worst attacks were yet to come.2

HMS Argonaut ablaze after the attack

The afternoon attacks opened at 1330, when a flight of six A-4s burst from around West Falkland and swept in on the frigate Argonaut, near Fanning Head at the entrance to San Carlos Water. The splashes of near-misses shrouded the vessel, and she was clearly on fire when the air cleared. Two bombs had hit, and although neither had detonated, they had done serious damage. One had hit forward, entering the Seacat magazine and setting off two of the missiles stored there. The other came to rest in the engine spaces, knocking out all power and steering. Argonaut was only saved from running into the cliffs of Fanning Head by a quick-thinking officer who got an anchor out, and officers on other ships thought she had actually run aground. Two of her men had been killed, but the crew fought back against both fire and flood, and ultimately saved the ship. Plymouth was dispatched to aid her, and towed her into San Carlos, where she would remain for the next week, while an access route was cut to allow the bomb in the forward magazine to be dumped overboard.

The Skyhawks made their escape safely, but the next flight of attackers was not so lucky. The Harrier CAP spotted a group of four Daggers in the gaps between the low clouds that had recently moved into the area, and dived after them. One of the two Harriers failed to reach firing position, but the other got a Sidewinder off, downing one of the Argentine aircraft. The other three continued towards the transport area, and believed that the lost aircraft had flown into a mountain until the pilot, who had ejected safely, returned to enlighten them.

Canberra with landing craft

Between 1340 and 1345, the amphibious group suffered a heavy attack. The remaining three Daggers appeared overhead, along with several flights of Skyhawks. The chaos overhead means that the exact sequence of events is not entirely clear, but for the first time, the attacking aircraft penetrated into San Carlos Water itself. Brilliant was near-missed by bombs and strafed by a Dagger, with one 30mm shell penetrating her main data bus, disabling her Sea Wolf, Exocet and sonar, although her main air-search radar remained operational and her fighter direction officer, Lieutenant-Commander L.S.G. Hulme, was able to continue his duties, successfully controlling several intercepts. It would be approximately a day before her crew managed to rewire everything and make her weapons operational again. The rest of the attackers were ineffective, despite the presence of the very large and very white Canberra, which had been brought in to carry 42 Commando. It's quite possible that the Argentine pilots assumed that the British wouldn't be stupid enough to bring such a vulnerable ship in close unless it was protected as a hospital ship.

Ardent after the first attack

But the worst of the attack fell on Ardent, out in Falkland Sound. Three naval Skyhawks fell upon her, and this time, she didn't get off with just a misaligned radar. Two of the 500 lb retarded bombs hit. One, impacting the hangar, exploded, destroying the ship's Lynx helicopter, killing several of the crew and sending the Seacat launcher flying high into the air. The other didn't explode, instead lodging in the aft machinery room. The combined damage knocked out the 4.5" gun, too, leaving the ship's defenses in the hands of manually-operated Oerlikons and machine guns. The crew quickly turned out to battle the fire, and while Ardent was hurt, she wasn't out of the fight.

Ardent's stern after the second attack

At 1400, Brilliant picked up another raid coming in and vectored the CAP against it. It turned out to be a trio of Daggers, all three of which were dispatched by the Harriers. This was only half of the raid, and the other three Daggers appeared over the anchorage with no prior warning, but they scored no hits. After completing his attack on the Daggers, one of the British pilots saw another trio of Skyhawks closing in on Ardent, although well out of his range. Ardent turned towards the attackers, bringing her newly-repaired 4.5" gun to bear. They quickly circled around the frigate, coming up from astern. At least two bombs from this attack hit the stern, wiping out the damage control party fighting fires belowdecks and kindling new blazes throughout the aft portion of the ship. The steering gear was also knocked out, and the captain decided to transfer his crew to the frigate Yarmouth, which had been dispatched to assist the stricken Ardent. Less than an hour after the second attack, 179 members of Ardent's crew had evacuated, leaving behind 22 dead. The last man to leave was the captain, Alan West, who would later go on to be First Sea Lord. Ardent sank the next morning, with only her foremast above the water. This was later used as a navigational beacon, and her light AA guns were removed by divers and mounted on other ships of the Task Force.

Yarmouth comes alongside Ardent to take the crew off

Ardent was avenged by another pair of Harriers that were just arriving on the CAP station. One of the aircraft saw the lead Harrier about to attack, but was shot down by the 30mm cannon of the wingman before he could warn his comrades. A Sidewinder dispatched another, although the pilot got out, and the third was badly damaged by cannon fire and had to eject before he could reach Port Stanley. The last attack of the day, at 1415, saw another 5 Skyhawks appear over the anchorage, although neither side inflicted damage.

Transport ship Norland is straddled by bombs

May 21st hadn't been a good day for the British. Five of the seven escorts supporting the landing had been damaged. Ardent was sunk, Antrim was damaged enough that she was withdrawn to escort the support ships, Argonaut was crippled, Brilliant was blind, and only Broadsword was still fully combat-capable. The only bright spot was that none of the transports had been damaged, but that could change if the British ran out of escorts before the Argentines ran out of fighters. Despite their limited endurance and lack of AWACS, the Harriers had performed well, shooting down 9 of the 33 fighters that had appeared over the beachhead. The Sea Wolf of Broadsword had gotten one more, and losing nearly one in three of their fighters gave the Argentinian Air Force and Navy nearly as much reason as the British to be nervous about their future.

Ardent heels over after being abandoned

Nor was the battle over. The next few days would see more sorties as the Argentines attempted to halt the buildup and the British began to push inland.

1 For safety reasons, bombs take some time after they're dropped to arm, and most of the Argentine attacks were made from an altitude too low for this to happen.

2 I've written a glossary to make it easier to keep track of terms in this series, and the full list of posts is here.


  1. May 12, 2019redRover said...

    The Falkland War was obviously fought with what was probably 70s or earlier equipment, and we're 40 years on from that, but how did the performance of the equipment measure up to what was expected beforehand?

    Fighting so close to land is obviously more difficult than fighting at sea for the sensors, and the RN had kind of slapdashed the whole thing together, but at the same time it seems like they were protected as much by Argentine failures as anything the RN did.

    Again, we're 40 years on, and the tech has gotten a lot better, but I would be interested in how the Falklands after action evaluations went in terms of effectiveness. Getting 9/33 attackers is good, but 24/33 getting away also suggests that the air defenses were hardly impenetrable, and one wonders how they would have worked against the Soviets.

    While of mostly historical interest at this point, it seems as though it also plays into some of the concerns about saturation attacks in the Chinese littoral and maybe a few other things.

  2. May 12, 2019bean said...

    That's a hard question because the situation in the Falklands was extremely different from those the British had expected to fight in. Very few of the systems completely failed, although some were more effective than others and there were lots which proved flakey in combat. Things are different today. Inshore operations have been big for a very long time, and modern digital radars help a lot. At the time, only two ships had a good point defense missile, while those are universal today.

  3. May 13, 2019DampOctopus said...

    I was surprised that a single small-calibre hit could disable Brilliant's main data bus: cables are cheap, so surely something this vital would have multiple backups physically routed around different parts of the ship? But I suppose that this sort of automatic redundancy depends on packet-switched networking, which may have been just a bit too modern to make it onto ships of this generation.

  4. May 13, 2019bean said...

    I'm really not sure. I managed a brief check of Friedman's British Destroyers and Frigates, but he didn't mention this incident specifically, so I don't know quite what was going on. The British in particular seem to have been so badly squeezed by funding shortages in the 60s and 70s that they forgot a lot of the damage-control lessons of WWII. The US doesn't seem to have screwed up quite so badly, but at the same time, we have a much smaller set of incidents to draw from. I do know that Falklands experience still informs ship design today.

  5. May 13, 2019Guzz said...

    I joined the Argonaut soon after her return from the FI and it would be fair to say she was in pretty bad shape in places but surprisingly intact as a whole considering the beating she (and other ships) took from the combined efforts of the Argentinian Airforce and South Atlantic weather. The Leander Class (of which the Argo was one of 26) were superb seaboats, well built and liked by their crews - not bad for a design dating back to the 1950's. I liked her a lot and was sad when the day came to leave several years later ...... to join the Brilliant - a totally different era of ship but still of 1970's technology (1960's in places). I think the vulnerability of the Sea Wolf (and other) systems to damage is a symptom of fading knowledge gained from previous wars.... as commented on by others. It's always been the case and forever will be for a military asset like a ship that takes decades to mature from design through to operational use. One other observation I have is it was noticeable how the 1950's/60's designs such as the Leander and County Class (such as HMS Glamorgan - which took a direct hit from an Exocet) faired compared to their more modern sisters. Evidence of the WWII underpinnings in their basic design is probably a major factor.

  6. May 13, 2019bean said...

    The Leanders were a great design, if probably kept in production a bit too long. And yes, they were definitely designed to be more damage-resistant than later ships. The lessons learned in the Falklands are still on the minds of designers. Most of the time. They occasionally forget, and then we end up with the LCS.

  7. June 06, 2019Belushi TD said...

    So, Argonaut was effectively club hauled to keep it off the rocks? Cool!

    Belushi TD

  8. June 06, 2019bean said...

    I guess that's technically true, although I'd guess they didn't realize what they were doing. After all, not much demand for that now that we can sail without regard to the wind.

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