June 09, 2019

The Falklands War Part 15

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. May 21st was brutal for both sides, with the British losing one frigate and having several others damaged, while the Argentinians lost almost a third of the aircraft that actually attacked.


The Argentine 707 crew after surviving their encounter with Cardiff

On the 22nd, the British braced for a repeat of the attacks on the 21st, but bad weather grounded the Argentine aircraft. However, it didn't reach the Falklands, and unloading continued uninterrupted. The 22nd also saw the land-based Rapier batteries finally set up and aligned, adding another layer of defenses to the British positions at San Carlos. The most exciting parts of the day were a pair of incidents where Argentinian 707s, searching for the British, nearly came to grief. The first occurred at 0300 just off the Falklands, when one of the big jets blundered within range of Coventry, waiting to form a missile trap just off Falkland Sound. Unfortunately, the Sea Dart system had a technical fault and refused to fire until after the target had escaped. The second incident was five hours later and 1,800 miles away. A group of escorts, built around the destroyers Bristol and Cardiff and five frigates, had departed the UK on May 10th, and was now well on its way to the Task Force. The group commander picked up the searching 707 and positioned Cardiff to intercept, altering the position of the other ships to conceal his maneuver. The scheme worked, and the Type 42 fired a pair of Sea Darts, which the airliner only narrowly managed to dodge. From that point on, the 707s were much more circumspect when approaching British warships.


A Rapier launcher guards San Carlos

The 22nd also saw a patrol boat strafed and driven aground, and a bombing raid on the Argentine base at Goose Green which did extensive damage to the fuel dump, but overall, the quiet was a welcome relief after the frenetic activity of the previous day. That evening saw Brilliant and Yarmouth dispatched to intercept the next ship sent with reinforcements to Goose Green, a Falklands collier captured during the Argentine invasion. When the two frigates showed up, the collier's crew promptly beached the ship, and the British warships returned to their stations before first light.


Europic Ferry unloading in San Carlos Water

Dawn on the 23rd saw a trio of supply ships, escorted by Antelope, arrive in San Carlos Water and begin unloading. By this point, over 5,000 tons of stores were ashore, and the total was still growing. The most notable new arrival was a prefabricated air base, which would allow the helicopters still aboard Atlantic Conveyor to come ashore, as well as giving the Harriers an alternate base closer to the action. British air activity began early, with Harrier GR3 sweeps over West Falkland, and an encounter between the Sea Harrier CAP and a trio of Argentine Army helicopters. One of the helicopters crashed while trying to evade the Harriers, and the other two were abandoned by their crews before the British jets strafed them. The British helicopters were active, too, with two separate attacks by Lynxes on the unfortunate Rio Carcarana, previously bombed by both the British and Argentinians. Their Sea Suka missiles finally damaged the freighter to the point that another Lynx, investigating around 1230, found her to be sinking. Ten minutes later, while on their way home, the crew of the helicopter spotted a quartet of Argentine Skyhawks heading north through Falkland Sound and alerted the defenders.


A Lynx armed with Sea Skua

The Skyhawks split up, two coming from the north over a ridge while the other pair circled around to the east, attacking down the valley that contained Port San Carlos. The latter two were met by a barrage of ordnance ranging from 7.62mm machine gun rounds to Rapier missiles and turned back. The first pair, however, pressed home their attacks, one aircraft selecting Broadsword as its target, the other going for Antelope. Broadsword and her attacker both emerged unscathed, but the Skyhawk attacking Antelope placed its bomb about six feet above the waterline, just below the hangar. The Argentine pilot had made his attack from very low altitude, not only preventing the bomb from arming but also causing him to hit the frigate's mast. Before anyone could find out if the jet would survive, it was hit by both a Seawolf and a Rapier, and exploded in a ball of fire. Moments later, one of the Skyhawks that had previously been driven off came in again, hitting Antelope with another bomb that also failed to detonate. Two of the surviving Skyhawks sustained extensive damage from machine guns. While the small-caliber bullets failed to bring down any jets, they did make extra work for the ground crews, one of the reasons for the staggered pace of the air attacks.


Antelope after being hit. The holes made by the bombs are clearly visible on the ship's side.

The next attack came at around 1330, when a trio of Navy Skyhawks1 swept in on the ships. Their pilots, possibly learning from the high rate of duds on the 21st, pulled up to 300' as they attacked Broadsword, Antelope and Yarmouth. However, the bombs aimed at the first two frigates missed, while the pilot attacking Yarmouth failed to release his for some reason. Sadly, one of his tires burst while landing, and the strong crosswind pushed him off the wet runway. He ejected unsuccessfully, his parachute failing to open in time, while his aircraft came to rest with only moderate damage.


Sea Harriers on patrol

Ten minutes later, another group of Argentine aircraft arrived. Four Daggers were spotted by the Sea Harrier CAP, which was unable to intercept them in time. For unknown reasons, only two of the attacking jets actually entered San Carlos, leading many sources to credit the Harriers with two shot down. The other two bored in on Broadsword, but their bombs missed. Initial accounts said that one was downed by a Rapier, the other by 20mm gunfire, but in fact, the actual score for the British was 0 out of 4.

Another raid was launched at 1405, but the three Daggers turned back without closing on the British ships. One of the patrolling Sea Harriers went in pursuit, and manged to get into Sidewinder range. The missile guided true, taking out the fighter-bomber with its pilot. The last Argentine sortie of the day came from the Super Etendards that had previously sunk Sheffield. They were guided in by VYCA-2, which had been monitoring Harrier flight patterns and believed they had located the carriers. In fact, the British had been flying deceptively, and the Super Etendards detected only empty ocean before returning home safely.


Antelope on fire

In San Carlos the major problem was Antelope, now the proud owner of two unstable and very dangerous Argentinian bombs. The bomb disposal team was promptly dispatched, and set to work on the bomb in Antelope's air conditioning space. The crew was evacuated to the forecastle and flight deck, as far as possible from the bomb, and the EOD team finally decided at 1715 that the best way to deal with it was to use a small defusing charge. Unfortunately, this set off the bomb, killing one of the EOD techs and badly wounding another. The crew quickly turned out to battle the resulting fire, despite damage to the fire main and limited water pressure. At 1820, the order to evacuate was given, as the risk of the second bomb going off was too high. Ten minutes after the last man left Antelope, the Seacat magazine exploded, setting off the torpedo magazine a few minutes later.2 Antelope was still afloat at dawn on the 24th, but the fire finally reached the second bomb, which broke the frigate's back when it detonated. She quickly snapped in half and sank.


Antelope after the second bomb went off

The evening of the 23rd saw another tragedy for the British. Port Stanley had been unmolested since the early hours of the 21st, when Glamorgan had bombarded it as a diversion from the landing. At 1900, four Sea Harriers were launched to rectify that, but the third, flown by Lieutenant-Commander Gordon Batt, flew into the sea about a mile off Hermes and very close to Brilliant, leading many of the other ships to believe the frigate had been torpedoed. Batt was killed instantly, but the other three Harriers completed their mission successfully despite heavy AA fire. The usual shuffling of ships between the logistics area outside the exclusion zone, the amphibious group and the carriers brought the evening to a close.


Antelope sinking

Overall, the 23rd had not been a good day for the invaders. Despite a rather small Argentine air effort, they had lost another frigate, a poor exchange for three strike aircraft. Nor were they out of the woods yet, as the battle would continue the next day.


1 There were originally four, but one had problems taking on fuel and had to turn back. This problem afflicted 20-25% of Skyhawk sorties during the war.

2 AP cameraman Martin Cleaver's photograph of this explosion is one of the best-known of the Falklands War, but it's under copyright, so I can't use it.

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