Category Archives: Falklands War

Kirchner’s Argentina: externalising domestic tensions

Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner, the President of Argentina, started the year in typical fashion by publishing an ‘open letter’ in the Guardian and the Independent, calling for negotiations over the status of the Falkland Islands.

In the letter Fernandez Kirchner argues that the islands were stripped from Argentina in an act of 19th Century colonialism:

“The Argentines on the Islands were expelled by the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom subsequently began a population implantation process similar to that applied to other territories under colonial rule. Since then, Britain, the colonial power, has refused to return the territories to the Argentine Republic, thus preventing it from restoring its territorial integrity.”

The letter ends: 

“In the name of the Argentine people, I reiterate our invitation for us to abide by the resolutions of the United Nations.”

The historical account put forward by Argentina differs starkly not only from the one on the Foreign Office website, but also general consensus. Ironically, Argentina itself was settled as an act of Nineteenth Century colonialism. It’s like asking the spanish-descended Argentinians to bugger off home, and leave the indigenous peoples in peace.

It is tempting to ask why the Guardian and the Independent published the ‘letter’. However, they are two of Britain’s more forward-thinking newspapers, and advertising income is advertising income, even if it comes from the Argentine Government.

If I was an Argentine citizen, I would be wondering how come my President could find not only the time to worry about publishing an ‘open letter’ in British newspapers, but also how the Argentine Treasury could afford to fund such a grandiose publicity stunt.

The British Government, quite rightly, points out that the Falklands is not a colony, and its relationship with the Falkland Islands is by choice of the islanders, not coercion. Therefore, not only is there nothing for the UK Government to negotiate over, but the islanders have a universal human right, enshrined in the very basic UN principles, to determine their own government and sovereignty.

The answer as to why the issue keeps re-appearing, as so often with latin american politics, lies within. Listed below are just a few of the news stories regarding Argentina from the BBC website in the past few months:

Widespread unrest and looting in Argentina; troops deployed

Seized Argentine Navy ship leaves Ghana

IMF data deadline looms for Argentine fagile economy

Argentina wins court delay over debt

Argentina default over debt likely

So… rioting on the streets and supermarkets being looted; Navy ship seized in a foreign port over unpaid debts; the IMF questioning Argentine honesty regarding financial data; and the possibility of a default over foreign debt… still wondering why Fernandez-Kirchner is trying to divert the attention of her people outside the country’s borders? It’s an ever-present in Argentine politics – when there are problems, the Malvinas issue is dragged out. It’s route one politics and not all that indistinguishable from Galtieri’s methodology in 1982.

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Falklands 30 – The Argentine surrender

Español: Galtieri (presidente de Facto) y Mari...

Menendez (right) with Galtieri (left) on his only visit to the Falklands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although the Argentine Governor in the Falklands, General Mario Menendez, had considered withdrawing from Stanley and occupying the Airfield peninsula with his remaining men, he quickly realised that this would be a futile gesture. According to Argentine sources Menendez had visited the local hospital, and the sight of military surgeons treating wounded men left an indelible impression upon him. According to one of his subordinates, Brigadier-General Jofre, the decision to surrender was also motivated by a desire to make sure that none of the Falkland Islanders would be harmed, which would have inevitably happened had the fighting entered Stanley itself.

Menendez contacted the President of the ruling Junta, Galtieri, to ask for permission to surrender. Out of touch with the situation, Galtieri ordered Menendez to fight on, reminding him that under the Argentine Army Code surrender was illegal unless 50% of his men were casualties, and he had expended 75% of his ammunition. Although he still had around 8,000 men left, including three Battalions worth of men who had not yet fought, as a professional soldier Menendez knew that the morale of his men had cracked. Mindful that the majority of them were inexperienced conscripts, that they had been outfought and that he had no support from Argentina, Menendez realised that he could not ask any more of his men after all that they had endured. He made up his mind to surrender. Galtieri had called him a coward, and ordered him out to fight. But these were easy accusations for a dictator to make, hundreds of miles away.

Some Argentine units had maintained their discipline, and prepared for urban warfare in Stanley. There is evidence that some Argentine conscripts were ordered by their officers to be prepared to shoot Falkland Islanders if they resisted, but thankfully no such situation arose. British artillery had already wisely ceased shelling Argentine troops as the flooded back into Stanley.

British units were ordered to advance to Stanley, and await developments on the outskirts. They were given instructions not to fire on the demoralised Argentines, while negotiations were taking place. 2 Para advanced down the track from Wireless Ridge into Stanley, followed by 3 Para. The Gurkhas scaled the now unoccupied Mount William without any opposition, and the Welsh Guards, reinforced by two companies from 40 Commando, occupied Sapper Hill.

A British delegation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Rose of the SAS, and including a Spanish speaking Royal Marine Officer, flew into Stanley. After negotiations with Menendez, Major-General Jeremy Moore, the Commander of British Land Forces on the Falklands, flew in and received Menendez’s surrender. The ceremony was private and low key, and under the terms of the surrender the Argentines were allowed to keep their flags, and the officers retained their sidearms – fearful of being lynched by their own conscripts. That they were thinking of this suggests in part how bad officer-men relations had become. The surrender was effective from 2359 British time, on 14 June 1982.

Although the Union Jack was now flying again over the Falklands, the problems were far from over. Thousands of Argentine prisoners had to be processed, cared for, fed and sheltered while they were awaiting repatriation. Many of them were held at the Airport. There were also masses of captured equipment to be dealt with:

  • 100 Mercedes Trucks
  • 20 Unimog trucks
  • 20 Mercedes Jeeps
  • 12 Panhard Armoured Cars
  • 1 Roland and 3 TigerCar Anti-Air missile launchers
  • 1 improvised surface to surface Exocet launcher
  • 3 155mm field guns
  • 10 Oto Melara 105mm cannons
  • 15 Oerlikon twin 35mm and Rheinmetall twin 20mm anti-air cannons
  • 11 various fire control radars
  • 14 airworthy helicopters, including 2 Augusta 109, 10 Huey, 1 Chinook, 1 Puma)
  • 10 Pucara attack aircraft
  • 1 Patrol Boat
  • 11,000 small arms weapons
  • 4 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition
  • 11,000 105mm artillery shells

Some of this equipment can now be seen in British military museums, or as trophies for units who were involved down south. In some cases was used by British forces – the SAS are rumoured to have utilised some of the folding stock FN FAL rifles captured from the Argentines – and other equipment also provided useful spare parts.

Clearly, the Argentines had not been lacking in heavy equipment or weaponry. They had artillery pieces that outranged the British artillery considerably, and formidable air defences. Some of the Panhard armoured cars were delivered to the islands and then seem to have been forgotten about – when they were captured, some still had their packaging on them. These could have caused problems for the British troops had they been utilised effectively. Logistics seems to have been a problem for the Argentines, in terms of getting the right equipment and making good use of it. Some sources suggesting that what was wanted and what was sent from Argentina were very different. One of the first cargo planes to the Islands after the invasion in April carried not reinforcements, but Televisions for the Islanders as a cyncial and futile attempt at bribery.

There was also much clearing up to be done, as the Argentines had shown scant regard for tidiness and cleanliness. Once the Prisoners had been returned home, the garrison itself had to be taken care of – both in accomodating the troops already on the islands, and then replacing them with fresh units from Britain.

The surrender was greated with relief among many in the task force, not least Sandy Woodward who had been struggling to keep all of his ships on station. After months operating in a South Atlantic autumn and early winter, many ships were virtually falling apart at the seams. Although air cover had to be maintained until an airbase could become operational on the Islands, and ships were still needed to defend the islands all the time there was still a threat, ships could at last begin returning home.

In London, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was lauded in the House of Commons. It was one of the rare occasions in British politics when the Leader of the Opposition, Michael Foot, paid tribute to the Prime Minister of the day.

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Falklands 30: The Battle in the Mountains #2

English: The Falklands War, 13 to 14 June

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With 3 Commando Brigade Established on Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet, the way was clear for 5 Brigade to follow through and capture the last range of peaks before Stanley. Despite evidence that the main British attack was coming overland from the west, the Argentine Command still maintained strong forces in Stanley itself, at the airport and on the surrounding coastline, rather than reinforcing the mountains.

2 Para, back in action after their fighting at Goose Green, were allocated Wireless Ridge. Fittingly, Wireless Ridge is just to the east of Mount Longdon, captured by their counterparts in 3 Para three days previously. The Battalion was now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Chaundler, who had been parachuted into the South Atlantic to replace H Jones. The capture of Wireless Ridge would be crucial, as it was the last obstacle before Moody Brook barracks, and the road into Stanley.The morning before the attack found the Paras waiting at Furze Bush Pass, to the north of Mount Longdon. Chaundlers plan was for a noisy attack, with companies taking each contour in turn before occupying Wireless Ridge. 2 Para had strong support, with 2 Scorpions and 2 Scimitars of the Blues and Royals, twelve 105mm guns, 3 Paras mortars from Longdon, and HMS Yarmouth and HMS Ambuscade out to sea providing naval gunfire support. Wireless Ridge was defended by the 7th Infantry Regiment, who had also fought on Mount Longdon.

The attack began at 2115, and the first objective ‘Rough Diamond’ was captured relatively easily, the Argentine defenders seemingly having withdrawn after coming under heavy preliminary bombardment. However, having established themselves on Rough Diamond D Company come under fire from Argentines on ‘Apple Pie’ to the east. A and B Companies assaulted Apple Pie, and the defenders withdrew under the weight of British fire. With the attack going so well, C Company captured Hill 100 without difficulty. With Apple Pie secure, D Company then ‘leapfrogged’ from Rough Diamon onto the western part of Wireless Ridge itself, codenamed ‘Blueberry Pie’. The Scorpions and Scimitars and also 2 Paras own heavy weapons moved up and joined A and B Companied on ‘Apple Pie’. Under such a heavy weight of fire, the Argentines wielded the first half of the ridge, but fought tenaciously over the eastern edge of the objective. After bunker to bunker fighting, by dawn all of Wirless Ridge was in British hands, with the Argentines streaming down the road back into Stanley. A small group attempted to regroup at Moody Brook and attack the Paras again, but were soon driven off. With dawn the Paras could see the road to Stanley, and were pressing for permission to advance into the town. The Paras had fought a fine battle, with the loss of only three men killed.

The 2nd Scots Guards were given the objective of capturing Mount Tumbledown, a long and narrow high feature just to the south west of Stanley. Capturing this would give the British Forces another commanding position over Stanley, and bottle the remaining Argentine forces into a narrow peninsula, limiting their room for maneouvre. The Guards were helicoptered to the north of Mount Harriet, and from there began a detailed reconaissance. The area approaching Tumbledown had already been patrolled by the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre. With a long, open approach to the objective, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott decided on a stealthy attack, retaining the element of surprise. Equally, an attack across the open southern slopes was bound the be spotted. The Guards battleplan was therefore threefold. G Coy would cross the start line at Goat Ridge, and occupy the westernmost part of the mountain. Then, using this as a platform, Left Flank company would pass through them and occupy the middle, highest section of the mountain. Finally, Right Flank Company would come up and take the eastern portion of the ridge. The Guards had in support two Scorpions and Scimitars of the Blues and Royals, up to five batterys of 105mm guns, 42 Commando’s mortars from Mount Harriet, and also the mortars of 1/7 Gurkhas. The Frigates Active and Avenger were also on call for naval gunfire support. Tumbledown was defended by the Argentine 7th Marine Battalion, who were also defending Mount William and Sapper Hill. Thus the Guards, who were going into action for the first time in the war, were coming up against one of the Argentines few crack units.

Before the attack began, a diversionary attack was made along the southern road to Stanley, aiming to confuse the enemy into thinking the target was further south. G Company, meanwhile, secured the western part of the Mountain by 10.30pm. Even with G Company’s fire support, Left Flank Company came up against firm opposition in the craggy peaks in the middle of the objective. Anti-Armour weapons such as MILAN, which had worked elsewhere, were only partly succesful in hitting Argentine bunkers. It was not until 0230 that artillery fire could be brought down on the Argentine defenders, restoring momentum to the stalled attack. After savage, hand-to-hand fighting, a handful of Scots Guards reached the summit. Right Flank Company then came up, and by 0815 the whole of Mount Tunbledown was in the hands of the Scots, for the loss of eight Guardsmen and a Royal Engineer.

The 1/7 Gurkhas had been brought up from Goose Green by helicopter, leaving a company behind to Garrison the area. They were given the objective of capturing Mount William, to the east of Tumbledown, after the Scots Guards had taken that feature – attacking Mount William on its own while Tumbledown was still in Argentine hands would have been foolhardy. With the coming of dawn and with Tumbledown only just taken, it appeared that the Gurkhas would have to make a daylight attack on Mount William. However, the Gurkhas fierce reputation preceded them, and with the news of the fall of Wireless Ridge and Tumbledown filtering through, the Argentines on Mount William fled back into Stanley.

The British troops has fought brilliantly in the mountains, capturing every objective given to them, apart from Mount William – which could be seen as an opportunity for exploitation IF Tumbledown had been captured early. Although the Argentines still had considerable men available, and a variety of heavy weaponry, they were now bottled up into a narrow peninsula only a couple of square miles. With no air or naval support and with the thousands of conscripts completely demoralised, the Argentine Commander Menendez had run out of options. Although the Junta back in Argentine has ordered him to fight to the last man, white flags were already flying over Stanley.

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Falklands 30 – The Battle in the Mountains #1

Position of Mount Challenger relative to other...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before 2 Para had finished fighting the Battle of Goose Green, Brigadier Julian Thompson had begun to move the rest of 3 Commando Brigade out of the San Carlos Beachhead. He was under pressure from the chain of command and politicians back in Britain, who wanted the Islands retaken quickly before losses became untenable or before international opinion turned.

After landing at San Carlos, the British Land Forces were going to have to confront and defeat the Argentine forces on East Falkland, and capture the objective – Stanley. Between San Carlos and Stanley was a range of hills and mountains, from Mount Kent and Mount Challenger in the West; to Two Sisters Ridge, Mount Harriet, Mount Longdon, Mount Tumbledown, Wireless Ridge and Sapper Hill.

With the loss of Chinook Heavy lift helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor, there were only two options for moving across East Falkland to the Mountains area – march, or move by sea. And as we have seen previously, movement by sea was relatively simple and kept troops fresh, but frought with danger. There were a limited amount of ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Commando Helicopter Force, but these were occupied moving heavy equipment.

As with Goose Green, it might be thought that because most of the Argentine troops were conscripts that the task of the attacking troops was simple. However, the Argentines had had plenty of time to get dug in on the mountains and to prepare positions. As one Para at Goose Green wistfully said, any conscript can dig in in a sangar and fire a .5inch Machine Gun. Evidence suggests that the Argentine conscripts were poorly treated by their superiors and were perhaps not in the best condition (see Martin Middlebrook’s ‘The Argentine Fight for the Falklands’), but they had no shortage of heavy weapons and were in range of supporting guns at Stanley. Normal military philosophy suggested that troops attacking prepared positions needed a superiority of 3 to 1. The British were slightly outnumbered, but time and political pressures forced them to attack regardless. Although the Argentines had garrisoned the Mountains strongly, they also had several Regiments – roughly equivalent to a British Battalion – around Stanley itself, and at Stanley airport – still fearing a British landing directly on Stanley itself.

The first actions in the battle for the Mountains came on 31 May, when the Marines Mountain and Artic Warfare Cadre fought a battle with an Argentine patrol at Top Malo House, and K Coy 42 Commando reached the summit of Mount Kent. 3 Para had secured Estancia House by 2 June, and on 4 June 45 Commando had yomped from Teal Inlet to the foot of Mount Kent, ready to reinforce either 42 Commando or 3 Para as necessary. What followed was a difficult battle, with the only option to attack and take each mountain range in turn, before leapfrogging onto the next, using each captured peak as a platform for another unit to come through and assault the next.

While 5 Infantry Brigade was establishing itseldf on the southern axis, 3 Commando Brigade was preparing to attack the first mountains in the north. 3 Para were alloted the objective of Mount Longdon, 45 Commando Two Sisters, and 42 Commando Mount Harriet. Brigade Headquarters was established around Teal Inlet. Some time was spent in reconnaisance patrols, and the disaster at Bluff Cove delayed 5 Infantry Brigade in preparing for its part of the advance. The Battle began on the night of 11 June.

3 Para had tabbed to the foot of Mount Longdon from San Carlos. The Paras had a battery of 6 105mm guns in support, as well as naval gunfire from HMS Avenger. Longdon and the adjoining Wireless Ridge were garrisoned by the Argentine 7th Infantry Regiment, and a stiff battle saw the Paras come up against heavy opposition in the form of Argentine bunkers well dug into the mountain, and anti-armour weapons were frequently used to dislodge these prepared positions. 18 Paras and an attached Royal Engineer had been killed in the battle. Sergeant Ian McKay was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross after he was killed commanding his platoon taking on a machine gun post. 3 Para were also awarded a DSO, two MC’s, 2 DCM’s and 3 MM’s for Longdon. The Paras spent the next two nights on Longdon and on the slopes approaching Wireless Ridge, being heavily shelled.

45 Commando, meanwhile, attacked Two Sisters. They had in support a battery of 105mm guns, and the Destroyer HMS Glamorgan with her two 4.5inch guns. Two Sisters was occupied the Argentine 4th Infantry Regiment, who were also on Mount Harriet. X Company approached from the East from Mount Kent, while Y and Z Company’s attacked from the left flank. Distracted by X Company’s frontal attack. Two Sisters was in British hands by dawn, and altough 45’s CO prepared to attack Mount Tumbledown, he was held back by Brigadier Thompson. The Royal Marines had lost three men, and a Sapper from the Royal Engineers. 45 Commando were awarded a DSO, 3 MC’s, a DCM and 4 MM’s for Two Sisters.

Mount Harriet was assaulted on the same night by 42 Commando. The Commandos had a battery of guns in support, as well as gunfire support from HMS Yarmouth. Their battle plan was similar to that of 45 Commando, in that one company launched a frontal diversionary feint. J Company moved up from Mount Challenger and  waited on Wall Mountain as a reserve and a diversion, while L and K Company’s ‘dog legged’ to the south and then attacked the objective from the rear. Harriet was taken by dawn, for the loss of only one Marine killed. 42 Commando received one DSO, an MC and 4 MM’s.

With the first line of Mountaisn secure, planning began for the second phase of attacks. Only Wireless Ridge, Mount Tumbledown, Mount William and Sapper Hill were between the British forces and Stanley.

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Falklands 30 – 5 Infantry Brigade and Sir Galahad

The abandoned hulk of RFA Sir Tristram in Fitzroy.

The abandoned hulk of RFA Sir Tristram in Fitzroy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

After the battle of Goose Green, 3 Commando Brigade began moving out of the San Carlos beachead area. After the loss of so many heavy lift helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor, the only options for the impending attack on Stanley were to march on foot, or leapfrog round the coast by ship.

 

The second major land forces unit to arrive on the Falklands, the Army’s 5 Infantry Brigade, had sailed south from the UK onboard the Cunard liner QE2. Also onboard was the incoming Land Forces commander, Royal Marine Major-General Jeremy Moore. Deemed to be too prestigious to risk going into San Carlos, the QE2 cross-shipped her human cargo to other ships in South Georgia. From there, they made the journey to San Carlos, replacing the Commandos and Paras who had struck out.

 

5 Infantry Brigade was the Army’s high-readiness, ‘go anywhere’ Brigade, with a contingency role for reinforcing NATO in Europe, but also a secondary role for what were termed ‘out of area’ operations. It was based upon the former 16 Parachute Brigade, which had been disbanded a few years previously. Originally comprised of 2 and 3 Para and 1/7 Gurkhas, 2 and 3 Para had been seconded to 3 Commando Brigade when the Falklands War had broken out. To replace them, the Army drafted in the 2nd Bn Scots Guards and the 1st Welsh Guards. The choice of the Guards Battalions is an interesting one. Both Battalions had recently finished a stretch of public duties in London – hardly ideal preparation for fighting in the South Atlantic. There are two feasible reasons for this. Firstly, many British Army units were either commited to NATO in Germany, or were in Britain as reinforcements for NATO. Northern Ireland also weighed heavily on operations commitments. Also, the Guards Regiments have always had an ability to ensure that they are involved in anything that is happening, and have strong links with ‘the establishment’. It is possible that well-connected figures lobbyed for their involvement. Although the units of 5 Brigade underwent a hurried training programme, it is interesting to consider whether any other options were available to the Army planners at the time. It is also conceivable that the Army believed that the war would be over by the time 5 Brigade arrived, and that they were destined for Garrison duty.

 

5 Infantry Brigade began landing at San Carlos on 31 May. As 3 Commando Brigade moved forwards to approach Stanley, Major-General Moore re-configured the units in his two Brigades. 2 Para joined 5 Brigade, leaving 3 Brigade with 42 and 45 Commandos and 3 Para. 3 Brigade were broadly alloted the northern sector the approach into Stanley, while 5 Brigade were allocated the southern route. 40 Commando remained in defence at San Carlos.

 

The Gurkhas soon replaced 2 Para at Goose Green, and patrolled into Lafonia. 2 Para had initially moved up to Fitzroy, after a clandestine phone call had discovered that there were no Argentines there. This move was not ordered by any higher commander, and was made by commandeering the sole remaining Chinook. Whilst a dashing maneourve, which showed the famous ‘airborne initiative’, it stretched the British Land Forces southern flank dangerously.

 

With 2 Para so far forward, and lacking mobility, Moore decided to risk transporting the rest of 5 Brigade round the coast up to Fitzroy in Landing ships. Some sources suggest that this was because they were not able to march across the Islands. The Scots Guards were transported by HMS Intrepid to Lively Island, and from there to Bluff Cove by Landing Craft. By this point 5 Brigade’s forward maintenance area was being established around Fitzroy. These runs into Fitzroy were meant to be made under cover of darkness only – there were no Rapier SAM defences at Fitzroy, nor any escort vessels to provide anti-air defences. Given the demands upon Destroyers and Frigates at the time this was probably unavoidable. Furthermore, ships around Fitzroy in daylight were easily under observation by the Argentines.

 

When it came to transporting the Welsh Guards forward, HMS Fearless left San Carlos on the night of 6 June – ironically, the 38th anniversary of the D-Day landings. With only two LCU’s available, only the Battalion Headquarters and No 2 Company were landed, at nearby Bluff Cove. The rest of the Battalion were taken back to the safety of San Carlos, to try again the next night. During the day of Monday 7 June, it was decided not to risk using the landing ships, and only to use the RFA LSL’s in the runs to Fitzroy. Clearly, the threat of being caught in daylight was being comprehended by at least somebody with the Task Force.

 

RFA Sir Tristram arrived at Fitzroy during the day on 7 June – she was only carrying ammunition – and Sir Galahad took onboard the remainder of the Welsh Guards. She was due to leave before dusk, but loading a Rapier Battery and a Field Hospital took longer than expected, and she did not leave until 5 hours after dusk. Apparently the Captain of the Sir Galahad requested a postponement until the following night, but his superiors ordered him to go anyway. Sailing around Lafonia, she arrived at Fitzroy on the morning of 8 June. Although Rapier Batteries had landed, it would take time to get them set up and working. It was recognised by at least some at Fitzroy that leaving hundreds of men onboard a defenceless ship in broad daylight was foolhardy – Major Ewen Southby-Tailyour has spoken very forthrightly about how he remonstrated with the Welsh Guards officers, who refused to land their men at Fitzroy,  as they had been ordered to land at Bluff Cove. Southby-Tailyor was senior to both company commanders, and gave them an order to disembark. They still refused. It was only a 5 mile march between the two landing sites. Was this an example of the Guards historical tendency to rigidly follow orders to the letter, as seen at Nijmegen Bridge in September 1944?

 

Predictably, the ships were spotted by Argentine observers, and a Skyhawk attack was launched from the mainland. 5 Skyhawks and 5 Daggers approached the Falklands. The Daggers attacked HMS Plymouth in Falkland Sound, slightly damaging her. The Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol over the Islands was vectored onto the Daggers, leaving Fitzroy defenceless. The Skyhawks pressed on to Fitzroy, three of them putting bombs into Sir Galahad, while two managed to bomb Sir Tristram. Fire ripped through both ships and were abandoned. 48 men were killed on Sir Galahad – five RFA crew, 32 Welsh Guards, and 11 other Army personnel. Hundreds were horrifically wounded, including Simon Weston, who would later become famous for his charity work.

 

Later in the day, four Skyhawks attacked and sunk on of HMS Fearless’s Landing Craft – Foxtrot Four – between Goose Green and Fitzroy. She was hit by a bomb and sank, with the loss of six of her crew. Although the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol shot down three of the offending Skyhawks, the Task Force had suffered its bloodiest day. Images of wounded soldiers being landed at Fitzroy and evacuated to Field Hospitals shocked the world. Ironically, the risks taken in rushing Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram to Fitzroy probably ended up delaying the end of the war by a day or two.

 

The Board of Inquiry into the loss of Sir Galahad and the damage to Sir Tristram found that the decision to send them to Fitzroy in daylight was correct, and that sending the Harrier CAP to the earlier Dagger threat was the correct one. Interestingly, the Board found that given the need to get the Battle for Stanley over with, risks were being taken – such as sending landing ships into vulnerable areas without adequate air cover. Given the demands of the weather on the ships of the Task Force, and the political pressure to finish the war, commanders were in a difficult position. But, with hindsight, much of the elements that contributed to the disaster were avoidable. 5 Infantry Brigade were not experienced in amphibious warfare. Elements of the Brigade were clearly not suited to fighting on the Falklands. One American writer has written about the Brigade’s units in less than complimentary terms, citing naval sources as sayingthat the Welsh Guards fared very badly compared to the Royal Marines. 5 Brigade did not have a naval liaison officer, nor did its commander or staff appear to listen to amphibious advice. No matter how you look upon it, there was no good reason for hundreds of men to be cooped up on a defencless ship, sitting ducks for air attack.

 

Chillingly, the losses suffered at Fitzroy suggest just how badly the Task Force could have been mauled had many of the Argentines bombs exploded upon hitting ships. If one of the landing ships had been hit in such a manner during the San Carlos Landings, things might have panned out quite differently.

 

After the end of the war Sir Galahad was towed out to sea and sunk as a war grave. Sir Tristram returned to the UK on a transporter, and was extensively repaired before returning to service.

 

 

 

 

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Falklands 30 – Goose Green

The Battle of Goose Green, 28–29 May 1982

The Battle of Goose Green, 28–29 May 1982 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the apparent success of the landings at San Carlos, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade – Brigadier Julian Thompson – was under pressure to break out and fight the bulk of the Argentine land forces on East Falkland. This is a quandry often seen in amphibious operations – a desire on the one hand by politicians and higher commanders to win the war quickly, and a more cautious approach by the commander in the field on the other. But with a finite limit to operations – after which the task forces ships would fall apart – the war had to be won. And sooner rather than later.

Knowing that the Argentines had a significant garrison around the settlements of Darwin and Goose Green to the south-east of San Carlos, Thompson planned a raid to attack and captured the settlements. He would probably have preferred not to – early plans had intended for the area to be bypassed – but leaving the Goose Green garrison alone would have left his right flank open in the advance to Stanley. And also, he was under pressure to break out of San Carlos. While there were not enough troops to begin the march to Stanley- and with the loss of helicopter lift this march would take much longer anyway – an attack on Goose Green was feasible.

Thompson detailed 2 Para for the attack, as they were located on Sussex Mountains, nearest Goose Green from San Carlos. 2 Para, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel ‘H’ Jones, number three Rifle Companies, a Patrol Company, and a support company with mortars and anti-tank weapons. In support were three 105mm guns of the Royal Artillery, Scout helicopters for resupply and casualty evacuation, Sea Harriers on call for air bombardment, and naval gunfire support from the Frigate HMS Arrow. The Argentine settlement numbered over a thousands Army and Air Force personnel. The bulk comprised 12 Infantry Regiment and a company from the commando-trained 25 Infantry Regiment. The garrison was supported by six 20mm Rheinmetall cannons, two radar-laid Oerlikon guns and four 105mm howitzers. Pucaras at Goose Green airstrip were armed with Napalm munitions. Hence 2 Para faced a very stiff task – attacking a numerically superior enemy, who had time to dig into prepared positions, and had a superiority of heavy weapons. The terrain and geography also suited the defender – the narrow isthmus restricting room for maneouvre.

2 Para marched down to Camilla Creek House, just north of their start line. During the final planning of their attack the men were startled to be informed by the BBC World Service that they were about to attack Goose Green. The World Service, of course, was being listened to by the Argentines, who therefore knew that the attack was imminent. An angry Jones threatened to sue the BBC, Whitehall and the War Cabinet. Thus 2 Para had almost certainly lost the advantage of surprise.

At 0230 on 28 May 2 Para launched its attack, with the objective of using darkness to capture Goose Green ‘by Breakfast’. There followed an intense, bitter battle. 2 Para quickly came upon strong opposition, from Argentine troops dug in on Darwin Hill. Momentum seemed to be lost. At this point Jones took the initiative, leading the Adjutant and A Company’s second-in-command in a charge up a gully in which both men were killed. Soon after Jones assaulted an Argentine trench. He was hit twice. The trench was captured, but he died within minutes. The Scout helicopter sent to evacuate him was shot down by a Pucara.

Jones’s second-in-command, Major Chris Keeble, took over a battle at a critical phase. 2 Para were well short of their objective, and caught in daylight against strong opposition. It was almost midday before the attack regained impetus, with A Company clearing the east side of Darwin Hill, and B Company taking Boca House in the west. At one point during the battle for the airfield the Argentines fires anti-aircraft guns at the attacking Paras. But with momentum regained, the evening found 2 Para on the outskirts of Goose Green settlement. Thompson flew in Juliet Company of 42 Commando to Darwin to reinforce 2 Para. The Argentines, meanwhile, prepared to fly in a company from 6 Regiment to reinforce their Garrison.

However, the next day the Garrison commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Piaggi, surrendered his forces, after an appeal from Keeble to avoid further loss of life. The Paras were astounded when a thousand men laid down their arms. 17 British personnel had been killed and 64 wounded, while 50 Argentines were killed and 120 were wounded.

Goose Green was a notable victory for the Paras. It was reminiscent of some of ther Regiment’s proudest moments, in particular the battle to reach Arnhem Bridge in September 1944. Goose Green showed that experienced, well trained men – many of whom had experience of Northern Ireland – could upset the odds against a numerically superior enemy. On the flip side, Goose Green showed that even badly led, badly equipped and badly trained conscripts can still put up a stern fight when operating heavy weapons and sited in prepared positions.

H Jones was awarded a posthumous VC for his bravery at Goose Green. There have been two very different schools of thought about Jones’s actions at Goose Green. Whilst on the one hand he was showing supreme leadership by leading by example, on the other hand, was he being reckless? Did he deprive his Battalion of its commanding officer when they most needed him? Personally, I try and keep an open mind. I know it’s a cliche in military history circles, but those of us who were not there will find it very hard to understand.

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Falklands 30 – Atlantic Conveyor

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Fa...

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Falklands. About 19 May 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic Conveyor was a twelve year old merchant container and vehicle transporter. Requisitioned on 14 April 1982, she was hurriedly refitted at Devonport Dockyard for service with the South Atlantic task force. She sailed from Plymouth on 25 April after undergoing trials, and was carrying 5 Chinook and 6 Wessex Helicopters.

Merchant vessels taken up by trade during the Falklands War present an interesting scenario.  Although most of their civilian crew stayed onboard and came under the naval discipline act, vessels also had a Naval party of officers and ratings onboard. Obviously, a merchant vessels master will know how to sail the ship better than a naval captain might, but would not necessarily know as much about naval warfare. Hence evidence suggests that the relationship between a ships master and senior naval officer, and indeed her civilian and naval crew, could be critical. The Atlantic Conveyor sailed with 31 merchant Seamen onboard, but 126 military personnel. Of these 36 officers and men formed the ships naval party, the rest were working on the aircraft carried.

She arrived at Ascension on 5 May, where she embarked 8 Sea Harriers as reinforcement for the Squadrons already in the South Atlantic, and 6 RAF Harrier GR3. Along with the amphibious group she left Ascension and arrived in the TEZ on 19 May, carrying a total of 25 aircraft. While entering the TEZ one Harrier was actually kept on deck alert, armed with Sidewinder missiles.

Although the Harriers were disembarked to Aircraft Carriers, the Altantic Conveyor retained her Helicopters onboard and remained with the Carrier Battle Group to the East while the landings at San Carlos began. She was due to sail into San Carlos Water on the night of 25 May to deliver her cargo. At 1940 that evening an air raid warning was received. Captain Ian North ordered an immediate turn to port by 40 degrees, to present th Conveyor’s strong stern doors to the direction of the threat. Emergency stations were piped, and the ships siren was sounded as an extra warning. HMS Invincible launched a Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol. At 1942 an approaching missile was sighted by several ships, including HMS Brilliant. All of the naval ships in the vicinity fired off chaff decoys, but the Conveyor had not been given chaff. She was hit by two exocet missiles at

The missiles penetrated her main cargo deck, and a fireball spread through the ship. As a merchant ship she was not equipped with the kind of damage control that naval warships are, such as bulkheads or sealable sections. Fires spread through her vast, cavernous hold. Firefighting was therefore impossible, and she was abandoned in an orderly manner thirty minutes after being hit – even though cluster bombs were beginning to be ignited by the fires. After burning for another day, she sank whilst under tow on 28 May. Only one of her Chinook helicopters had left – and that only for a test flight.

One of the sad statistics about the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor is that of the 12 men who lost their lives, 9 of them had actually managed to escape the ship but died whilst awaiting rescue in the water. Among them was the ships civilian Master, Captain Ian North. North had made it into the sea, but slipped between the waves before boarding a lifeboat. The Senior Naval Officer survived but was deeply moved by the loss of his friend. That 139 of her crew of 149 – 92% – were rescued is testament to the great efforts made by ships and helicopters in the area. One of the helicopters assisting in the rescue was reportedly co-piloted by Prince Andrew.

The loss of the Atlantic Conveyors considerable troop-carrying helicopters meant that the land forces would, in the main, have to tab or yomp across East Falkland towards Stanley. This no doubt made executing the war a much harder porposition, than if six Chinooks had been available to lift the Paras, Marines, Guardsmen and Gurkhas right from Stanley to the Mountains. The Argentines might have prefered to have sunk one of the Aircraft Carriers, but sinking the Atlantic Conveyor was a remarkable piece of luck which probably prolonged the war for days if not weeks.

The Board of Inquiry into the Atlantic Conveyor found no fault with anyone involved in the loss of the ship, only raising minor points that could not possibly have been foreseen, especially given the speed with which merchant vessels had been co-opted into the war effort. It had been nigh-impossible, in the time available, to give much thought to the loading of explosive cargoes, as would have been the case in peacetime. Obviously she didn’t have the same kind of Magazine arrangements that a military ship might have.

It’s an interesting thought, that with a lack of platforms for flying helicopters, and an uncertain world, might it be possible to use ships such as the Atlantic Conveyor in an emergency once again? Her use was very similar to some of the Merchant Navy ships in the Second World War that were fitted to operate a small number of aircraft. Of course, the Harriers were ideal for this as vertical take off aircraft. And do we have enough spare naval personnel nowadays to provide naval party’s in a hurry? Being able to fit merchant vessels with Chaff in an emergency would also seem to be a lesson learn from the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor.

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Falklands 30 – HMS Coventry

A starboard bow view of the British destroyer ...

After experiencing heavy air raids at San Carlos, and some very brave flying by Argentine pilots, the Task Force commanders devised a new tactic to try and give early warning of air raids, and also to shoot down offending aircraft before they got close to the vulnerable landing ships or the carriers out to sea.

HMS Coventry – a Type 42 Destroyer – and HMS Broadsword -a Type 22 Frigate – were paired up and stationed north of Pebble Island, ‘up threat’ as a radar picket and trap for Argentine aircraft heading for San Carlos. Coventry was armed with Sea Dart, a medium-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon. Broadsword had the new Sea Wolf system, more ideal for close range work. The idea was that Broadsword could defend Coventry, whilst Coventry’s long range radar and Sea Dart could pick off incoming threats. This was specifically suggested by the Commanding Officers of both ships. Of the three Type 42 Destroyers that had originally sailed with the Task Force, one had been sunk (Sheffield) and another had been badly damaged (Glasgow), both by air attack. The ‘Type 64′ combo took up position north of Pebble Island on 21 May.

Coventry had had an eventful – and rather succesful war – thus far. One of the ships on Exercise Spring Train before being sent south to the Falklands, she entered the Total Exclusion Zone on the 1st of May, taking up picket duties in advance of the Task Force. She alternated between acting as a radar picket and bombarding shore positions around Stanley. For these shore bombardments she was teamed up with HMS Broadsword, for extra defence. On 3 May Coventry’s Lynx was sent to attack the Argentine patrol ship Alfrez Sobral. The patrol boat was heavily damaged by the new Sea Skua missiles, and later boarded by the SBS. On 4 May – the day that HMS Sheffield was sunk – Coventry was to the north west of the task force, repairing her troublesome 909 Radar. Sheffield was in the south-western position that Coventry had occupied until that point when she was hit by an Exocet missile. On 9 May Coventry was sent closer to the Falklands in an attempt to lure out Argentine aircraft. Four Sea Dart missiles were fired – a Hercules transport escaped unharmed, one Puma Helicopter was destroyed and two A-4 Skyhawks may possibly have been shot down. Later on the same day Coventry directed two Sea Harriers to attack the spy ship Narwal.

Remaining off Pebble Island for several days, Coventry and Broadsword continued acting as a radar picket. Coventry directed numerous Sea Harrier patrols onto targets – this is a role performed by surface ships, escorts in particular, that is often overlooked. It is possible, in hindsight, that Coventry and Broadsword had been in the same position for too long, and it is clear that the Argentines were well aware that they were there and determined to do something about it.

25 May – Argentina’s national day – began in much the same hectic fashion. One Skyhawk was shot down after returning from a raid on San Carlos, and another Skyhawk was splashed, this time directly attacking Coventry and Broadsword. The second raid, however, had more luck. Of the six airfraft – in two waves of three – two returned to base before reaching the Falklands. Flying low and using the land mass of West Falkland as radar cover, Coventry was unable to pick up the Skyhawks on their radars. Broadsword DID pick them up, but called OFF a Sea Harrier patrol. Coventry’s radar – designed for operating in open sea – was struggling to pick up the aircraft against Peble Island’s land signature. Small arms fire diverted the first two Skyhawks towards Broadsword. Her Sea Wolf locked on, but unable to distinguish between the two targets, for all intents and purposes went to sleep. Defenceless, one of the Skyhawk’s bombs hit the sea, bounced up and passed through the flight deck, destroying the Lynx helicopter in the process.

The second wave pressed on soon after. Once again Coventry and Broadsword declined assistance from the Sea Harriers, confident that the threat could be dealt with. Coventry fired a single Sea Dart and missed. Broadsword locked on with her Sea Wolf, but at the last minute Coventry, carrying out evasive maneouvres, slewed right in front of Broadsword’s line of fire. The first Skyhawk pilot fired his cannon at the hangar, before releasing his bombs – three 550lb general bombs. All three struck, and exploded seconds later. The second Skyhawk failed to release its bombs.

A large hole was torn in the port side, and men were killed in the auxiliary machine space, the computer room and the dining room where a first aid party were mustered. The explosion in the computer room wrecked the operations room above. Fire spread through the ship, and water poured in through the gaping hole. Smoke and fire spread beyond the capabilities of damage control, particularly as the ops room – the nerve centre of the ship – had been taken out. No order to abandon ship was given, but it was obvious to all onboard that the Coventry was sinking. Quietly and efficiently, liferafts were deployed. Broadsword began picking up survivors, and helicopters began arriving from San Carlos water. Many men – including Captain Hart-Dyke – simply stepped off of the upturned hull into lifeboats. Twenty minutes after being hit, HMS Coventry sank – the fourth Royal Navy warship lost in the Falklands, and the third in four days since the landings at San Carlos. Coventry’s survivors were later returned home on the QE2. 22 men were killed, and one man died in 1983 of his injuries.

Although the loss of any warship is hard to take – and especially the loss of lives – Coventry had performed admirably, and had probably saved countless ships at San Carlos and in the Task Force from being attacked and sunk. Such is the lot of Royal Navy warships sometimes. I’ve always found it intriguing that Coventry was sunk in a manner almost identical to Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942. Different war, 40 years apart, but the same spirit.

The Board of Inquiry absolved Coventry’s crew of any blame. Coventry was noted to be well prepared for war, having spent much time training and 6 months serving with NATO standing forces in the North Sea in 1981, in addition to Exercise Spring Train. However, there were a few lingering mechanical difficulties, such as the 909 radar. The Board of Inquiry – and others – did find that the ships had a lack of close in weapons, beyond missile systems, and this was rectified with the fitting of Phalanx and Goalkeeper to many ships soon after the Falklands War. Coventry and Broadsword had been instructed not to call on Sea Harrier support unless absolutely necessary, as this might chase enemy aircraft away rather than destroy them. Both ships had worked well together. It was found, however, that Coventry was not sufficiently trained for inshore anti-air warfare work. This is not surprising, given that the ship was designed for open-water warfare against the Eastern Bloc in the North Atlantic.

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Falklands 30 – HMS Antelope

Antelope's magazines exploding on 24 May 1982

If you had to pick five iconic images that came out of the 1982 Falklands War, the sinking of HMS Antelope in San Carlos Water.

HMS Antelope was a Type 21 ‘A’ Class Frigate. Ordered to fill a gap for a cheap, expendable patrol frigate, the Type 21’s were designed jointly by Yarrow and Vosper Thorneycroft, and hence they had ‘yacht’ like lines. Commissioned in 1975, she was the only ship in her class not to be fitted with Exocet missile launchers. Their performance and accomodation was reportedly good compared to other contemporary British warships.

Antelope only arrived in the Falklands theatre on 21 May 1982. After the loss of her sister ship HMS Ardent, she was positioned to perform air defence duty at the entrance of San Carlos Water from Falkland Sound. On 23 May she was attacked by four Argentine Skyhawks in two waves. The second aircraft managed to put a 1,000lb bomb into Antelopes starboard side, killing one crewman. The bomb did not explode and the Skyhawk was shot down by small arms fire from Antelope’s upper deck. The second wave of Skyhawks attacked soon after. One of the attacking aircraft was shot down by Antelope’s 2omm cannon, and crashed through the ships mainmast. Although the pilot was killed, one of his bombs pierced the ship without exploding.

Antelope quickly moved into more sheltered water, and took oboard two Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians from the  Royal Engineers – Warrant Officer Phillips and Staff Sergeant Prescott. Both unexploded bombs were in particularly dangerous situations – one was inacessible due to wreckage, and the other had been damaged. Neither would be easy to defuse. After attempting to remove this bombs fuse three times remotely, the EOD team placed a small explosive charge on the fuse. This charge ignited the bomb, killing Prescott instantly and seriously wounding Phillips. The ship was torn open. With major fires spreading and the water main fractured, Commander Nick Tobin gave the order to abandon ship.

Five minutes after Tobin left his ship, the missile magazine ignited, illuminating the night sky in San Carlos, and providing some of the most memorable war footage of the late twentieth century. The abandoned Antelope burned throughout the night and into the next day, her back broken, she slipped beneath the waves the next day on 24 May 2012.

As harsh as it sounds, both HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope were ‘sacrificial lambs’ in San Carlos. The Royal Navy and the Task Force could probably take the loss of two general purpose frigates – it might have found the loss of one of the landing ships, or even one of the Type 22 Frigates harder to take. Although the Type 21 Frigates were carrying obsolescent missile systems – such as Sea Cat – and were placed in an exposed role, they performed admirably in a war for which they were not entirely suited.

The interesting this is, the MOD always convenes a Board of Inquiry whenever a Royal Navy ship is sunk or badly damaged. And in the case of HMS Antelope, the report of the Board of Inquiry is actually available to read online here, albeit heavily redacted. The Board found that HMS Antelope and her crew had only passsed Operational Sea Training the year before with a ‘satisfactory’ pass, and that her training had been truncated – in particular regarding anti-air warfare. For this reason she had not been considered a first choice to deploy to the Falklands, but was sent south due to the gravity of the situation. She was sent into San Carlos straight after arriving in the theatre, and hence it was the first action that any of here crew had experienced.

In a sense, Antelope and her crew were completely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for whatever reason were unprepared for what was facing them, with obsolescent weapons. But then again, any whether prepared or not any Royal Navy warship is liable to find itself in harms way. I think its particularly striking that HMS Antelope was sunk in a very similar manner to ships such as Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942 – fighting bravely, but overwhelmed by a swarm of enemy aircraft.

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Falklands 30 – Bomb Alley

HMS Ardent

HMS Ardent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dawn saw 3 Commando Brigade – three Royal Marine Commandos, reinforced by two Para Battalions, and with attached units, ashore and dug in on beaches around San Carlos Water. Apart from the small band of troops at Fanning Head, the landings had been unopposed by Argentine land forces. Given the scarcity of Argentine troops compared to the geography of the Falklands, Menendex had decided that he had to first and foremost guard the primary objective – Port Stanley. He assumed that the British commanders would land in Stanley, in an American style ‘front door’ attack. San Carlos hardly featured in Argentine planning,  indeed, they had assumed that the British would not land there.

Given the lack of land and sea opposition, the only opposition that would meet the amphibious group in San Carlos water would be Argentine air forcers. The first aircraft to attack the San Carlos landings were actually based in the Falklands. Pucaras from Goose Green took off while HMS Ardent was shelling their airstrip. One of them was shot down by an SAS patrol with a Stinger hand-held anti-aircraft missile near Sussex Mountains. A single Aermacci was sent from Stanley to reconnoitre the reported landings. After attacking HMS Argonaut with rockets, the Aermacci escaped a hail of fire from sea and land. Thereafter confirmation of the landings reached the Argentine command, and long-range attacks were ordered from the mainland.

First on the scene were eight Daggers (Israeli copies of the Mirage). They hit Broadsword and Antrim, but nobody was killed. Antrim in particular had an unexploded bomb very close to her Sea Slug magazine, and had to move in to San Carlos water whilst it was defused. Shortly after the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol shot down one of two Pucaras that had attacked a naval gunfire officer directing fire from HMS Ardent onto the airfield at Goose Green.

At 1pm eight Skyhawks were due to attack. Only two arrived, after the rest either suffered refuelling problems or wasted their bombs on an abandoned wreck in Falkland Sound. The remaining aircraft just missed Ardent, and evaded Sea Harriers directed onto them by Brilliant. Immediately the Sea Harriers noticed another wave of Skyhawks appearing over West Falkland. Two of the Skyhawks were shot down. At 2.30pm another six Skyhawks attacked, this time almost sinking Argonaut. The two bombs that hit her failed to explode, but killed two men in her Sea Cat Magazine.

The next wave consisted of twelve Daggers. of the first group of six, two pilots aborted. As the remaining four approached Brilliant vectored in the Sea Harrier CAP, who shot down one of the Daggers. The three surviving aircraft however pressed on and attacked Ardent in Grantham Sound. Her Lynx helicopter and Sea Cat system were destroyed, killing a number of men. Defenceless apart from small arms fire, she headed for the protection of San Carlos Water. However before she reached sanctuary six more Daggers arrived on the scene. The first three aircraft caused light damage and casualties to Brilliant, but the second wave of three aircraft were all shot down by Sea Harriers before reaching San Carlos.

The last attacks of the day occured some half an hour later. Two flights of Skyhawks attacked Ardent, causing extensive damage. On fire and flooding, and with 22 men killed, Commander Alan West gave the order to abandon ship. HMS Yarmouth took off her survivors, and Ardent finally sank the following evening. Two of the Skyhawks were shot down by Sea Harriers. The third was damaged, and unable to land at Stanley, ejected.

Thus ended the dramatic air attacks on D-Day. One suspects that the task force commanders would have probably accepted the loss of one light frigate, in return for the safety of the landings. The Argentine pilots were undoubtedly incredibly brave, in pressing home their attacks over such a long distance and over difficult target terrain, but history has suggested that if they had concentrated on the vital landing ships rather than the warship escorts, the Falklands War may have run very differently. From a morale point of view alone, the loss of a ship like Canberra might have been politically tricky. And, it has to be said, if their bombs had been fused correctly, the Royal Navy might have lost a lot more ships at San Carlos than it did.

Martin Middlebrook’s ‘Argentine Fight for the Falklands’ makes much of the Argentines having a helicopter-ready reaction force waiting around Stanley to take off an oppose any landings. For whatever reason, this did not happen at San Carlos. Certainly, even a small-scale raid might have given the Commando Brigade something to think about. But given that the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol was ever-present, and had shot up a number of helicopters around Mount Kent earlier in the day, the Argentines might have thought better of it. With the absence of any opposition on land, the land forces were able to secure a bridgehead for expansion.

Hence, after the Argentine Navy had scurried back to port after the sinking of the Belgrano, the only serious opposition to a British landing on the Falklands came from the Argentine air forces. Despite losing one ship sunk and several others damaged, the landing force had survived a crucial first 24 hours during which they had landed a 5 Battalion size Brigade, plus supporting elements – a significant achievement. The Battle for San Carlos was still far from over, however.

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Falklands 30 – The San Carlos Landings

 Three landing craft from HMS FEARLESS, contain...

In the case of the Falklands War, the British Task Force was attempting to dislodge an uninvited invader. In order to do so, the Argentine sea and air forces had to be worn down to a point at which British amphibious forces could land on the islands, and then defeat the Argentine land forces in battle.

Ordinarily, amphibious operations would only be attempted once a number of criteria were achieved. Firstly, air and sea superiority would have to be achieved, in order for friendly air and naval craft to protect the landing ships during their most vulnerable phase. Secondly, western military philosophy in 1982 suggested that offensive operations such as amphibious landings should not be undertaken unless the attacked had at least a numerical superiority of 3:1 over the defender.

In May 1982, the British task force had largely forced the Argentine fleet back into port after the sinking of the Belgrano, thus solving one potential headache. And although the task force had given a good account of itself in dealing with air attack – the Sea Harriers in particular proving to be more than a match for Argentine fighters – the British had not worn down enough of the Argentine air inventory to claim air superiority. The Falklands were within range of fast jets flying from the Argentine mainland. In addition, the task force only possessed a reinforced Brigade, of three Royal Marine Commandos and two Parachute Battalions. The Argentines on the Falklands, meanwhile, numbered Divisional strength – albeit comprised mostly of conscripts – and had had time to dig in.

The task force, however, was under considerable pressure to effect a landing on the Falklands. Any operation aimed at re-taking the Islands would, ultimately, require an amphibious landing. If international opinion turned against Britain and forced a ceasefire, then the proverb ‘possesion is nine tenths of the law’ might come into play. Hence, the politicians in London wanted a landing as soon as possible. Although the main Battlegroup of the task force had steamed into the waters around the Falklands earlier in May, the landing force had taken some time to assemble – in particular, the landing ship HMS Intrepid had been brought out of mothballs in Portsmouth Dockyard, and was the last piece of the jigsaw. As soon as she arrived, the landing could take place. Sandy Woodward was also conscious of the oncoming southern winter, which would add to the wear and tear on the task force – there was a limit to how long the ships could stay at sea fighting, and getting the war over with as soon as possible was a priority.

San Carlos, an inlet on the west coast of East Falkland, had been reconnoitred by Special Forces for weeks prior to the landings. It was accessed via the northern entrance of Falkland sound. It was around 60 miles from the capital Port Stanley, and considered ideal for a landing. It had direct access from the South Atlantic, and was in a sheltered water. There were plenty of landing beaches, and hills on the outskirts for the landing forces to dig in to in the event of a counter-attack. And crucially, it was believed that the Argentines were expecting a landing near Port Stanley. Heavily influenced by the American, direct strategy of attack, the Argentine’s expected the Marines and Paras to land on the beach outside of Stanley and leg it up Stanley High Street. But Stanley was heavily defended, and was garrisoned by thousands of Argentines. San Carlos, by contrast, had very few. In a classic example of Liddel-Hart‘s indirect approach, San Carlos was chosen as it would allow the land forces to gain a foothold and build up, before striking east.

Interestingly, it was not thought possible for any amphibious landing to succeed at San Carlos – according to to British pre-war plans, the US armed forces or the Argentines. Yet necessity virtually forced the British planners to choose San Carlos by default, after all other possibilities had been discounted.

Given that the landings were likely to come under air attack, air-defence was a key consideration. Woodward detached the two Sea Wolf Type 22 Frigates Broadsword and Brilliant, the Sea Dart armed Type 42 Destroyer HMS Coventry, and a force of Frigates and Destroyers to provide naval gunfire support. The landings would be led by the Landing Ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, with their Landing Craft.

Intelligence suggested that there were very few Argentine troops in the area, which would give the British landing forces time to dig in and build up in preparation for an assault on Stanley. Despite this, there was naturally a sense of trepidation among the Marines and Paras preparing to land on D-Day. Would the Argentines subscribe to Rommel’s thoughts on amphibious landings, and attempt to throw the landings back into the sea in the first 24 hours?

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Falklands 30 – Pebble Island and Mikado: Special Forces in the Falklands

One intriguing element of the Falklands War is the use of Special Forces during the conflict. In some cases the SAS – and SBS – punched well above their weight. In other cases, they were misused and suffered significant losses. Due to their very nature, much of the story of the special forces in the Falklands is yet to – indeed may never – be told.

The SAS in particular was experiencing a high profile in 1982, shortly after the Iranian Embassy. Many of the men in the Regiment in 1982 had served in places such as Aden, Borneo and Northern Ireland. The SAS were among the first units into action, on South Georgia. On 21 April a troop was landed on Fortuna Glacier on the island, but had to be exfiltrated due to the blizzard conditions. Two Wessex Helicopters crashed attempting to lift them out. The third, from HMS Antrim, managed to take off, heavily overladed with SAS men and the crews of the other two crashed helicopters.

Although the Argentines had sunk HMS Sheffield with an Super Etendard-launched Exrocet misseile, it was knocwn that tchey possessed at least several more. Whilst EC arms embargos prevented Argentine procuring any ore from France, and secret service agents were outbidding the Argentines on the black market, the attention of military planners turned to neutralising the threat posed by the Etendard/Exocet combination. To lose one Destroyer was bad enough; but to lose an Aircraft Carrier might have meant the end of the war.

Operation Mikado was a plan to use the SAS to attack the Argentine’s Super Etendard bases at Tierra Fuego. On 17 May 1982 a Sea King of 846 Naval Air Squadron took off from HMS Invincible, which had steamed to within 500 miles of the Argentine mainland. The Sea King was carrying a recce party of B Squadron SAS, who were heading to scout the Super Etendard airbase at Rio Grande. It would be a one way trip for the Sea King – lacking the range to make it back to the task force, she was stripped down to the bare essentials. Landing west of the Chilean border, the aircraft was ditched in a lake. Even though the aircrew punched holes in her fuselage, she refused to sink. The aircrew were picked up in Chile and flown home.The SAS men believed that they had been spotted by the Chileans, and messaged their HQ in Hereford informing that the mission was being aborted. They had indeed been spotted, and 1,300 Argentine Marines sweeped the area searching for them.

This failure meant that the main party would have to go in blind. The fact that the recce party might have been compromised also meant that the Argentines might be suspicious and on alert. The Rio Grande area was believed to be defended by four Battalions of Argentine Marines. Despite this, the Squadron OC ordered the raid to go ahead. The operation had been rehearsed thoroughly for the past week.

The Mikado plan seems to have been strongly pushed for by Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, then director of British Special Forces. The plan called for two RAF C130 Hercules to fly from Ascension Island with 55 men of B Squadron SAS onboard. The Hercules would land on the tarmac of the runway, keeping their engines running while the SAS men destroyed the Etendards. If somehow the C130’s survived they men would re-board the aircraft and fly to neutral Chile. If not, then the survivors would have to cross the border on foot. The proposed plan was extremely sensitive, as it extended the war to the South American mainland – something that would not find favour among international opinion.

Tying up to Hercules transport aircraft meant that they would at best be interned in Chile for the duration, at worst be destroyed entirely. But perhaps worse than that, 55  expensively trained SAS troops – a significant proportion of Britain’s special forces – were being put in serious danger. Would the loss of these men and two aircraft have represented a good exchange for five Super Etendards?

One cannot help but feel that de la Billiere was taking his inspiration from raids on Axis airfields in North Africa. The situation in 1982 was quite different – the Argentines surely expected some kind of attack on their air bases. Perhaps DLB was inspired by Operation Entebbe, an Israeli operation to recover hostages on a hijacked airliner in Uganda. The Ugandan Forces in 1976 posed far less of a threat to the Israelis than the Argentines did to the SAS, both in terms of early warning and anti-air defences. The Argentine radar might give them a six minute warning of the incoming aircraft – ample time to throw up stout defences.

The SAS men – a lot more sensible and less bloodthirsty than popularculture would have us believe – do not seem to have liked the plan one bit, seeing it as a suicide mission. One Sergeant went as far as handing in his resignation. One RAF Pilot assigned to the mission is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The Squadron Commander agreed with the concept, but did not like the specifics of the plan that he was being pressured into implementing. The Squadron Commander was removed and replaced with the Regiment’s second in command. According to some accounts, De la Billiere made himself very unpopular in some quarters, as it was felt that he was trying to engineer a high-profile mission for the Regiment. After the war De la Billiere delivered a extremely ill-judged – some might say bad taste laden – speech to the SAS men, near enough accusing them of mutiny. He was laughed out of the room.

In hindsight, taking the war to the Argentine mainland in such a manner would have escalated the war, and not reflected well on the British effort to retake the islands. The Argentines were almost certainly on their guard against such an event, and it would be hard to believe that the slow, unarmed Hercules would be sitting ducks for the Argentine air defences. If they guarded Stanley airport with Roland and Tigercat missiles and radar-laid Rheinmetal cannon, what would they be guarding a mainland Super Etendard base with?

By contrast with Operation Mikado, the raid on Pebble Island was an outstanding success. Off West Falkland, Pebble Island hosted a small airfield with Pucara light attack aircraft and Mentor reconaissance craft. These aircraft were will within range of the chosen landing site at San Carlos, and could have compromised the amphibious task group on its way to the landings, and then launched attacks on the ships and troops at their most vulnerable point. According to Sandy Woodward’s memoirs, he was pondering the problem with his planning team when a ‘talking tree’ SAS officer chipped in, ‘I wonder if we might be able to help, Admiral?’. After convincing the SAS that they could not spend two weeks planning, the raid was set for the night of 14 and 15 May.

Boat Troop of D Squadron carried out prior reconaissance, via cockleshell-style Klepper canoes. On the night HMS Hermes sailed to off the north of West Falkland, accompanied by HMS Glamorgan. Sea King helicopters carried 45 members of D Squadron of the SAS, dropping them off just under four miles from the airfield. The raiding party were heavily armed, including mortars and anti-armour weapons. The party reached the airfield without being spotted, and managed to place explosive charges on all of the aircraft. Once the charges had been placed the SAS men opened fire with small arms, followed by gunfire support from HMS Glamorgan offshore.

The party were exfiltrated succesfully, with only one SAS man wounded. According to British sources the Argentine commander was killed – this is denied by the Argentines themselves – and 11 aircraft were destroyed. The raid was considered a complete success, with the objective neutralised and virtually no casualties suffered.

A further tragedy befell the SAS the night before the landings at San Carlos. Crossdecking between ships, a Sea King loaded with SAS men apparently struck a seabird in mid-flight. Of the 30 men on the aircraft, only eight got out alive. It was the largest loss of life for the Regiment since the Second World War. Many of the men lost were veterans of South Georgia and Pebble Island.

Other SAS patrols were out on the Falklands prior to the landings at San Carlos, carrying out the arguably less glamorous work of surveillance and survey work. Men ofthe SBS were on the landing beaches to guide the amphibious force in on D-Day. That the landings were succesful and unopposed was down very much to their work with the mark one human eyeball.

The profile and connections of the SAS do seem to have caused some problems for the force commanders on the ground. When more than one SAS Squadron deploys on an operation the CO accompanies them. In this instance he had direct satellite communication with Hereford and London, and hence was able to communicate with Britain quicker than any of his superiors. And in De la Billiere the SAS had a vociferous supporter who was not afraid to knock down doors in the interests of ‘his’ Regiment. Was Operation Mikado a political construction to aid the Regiment’s profile?

The experiences of special forces in the Falklands would suggest that there is much value in having highly trained, very capable special forces on call for unforseen eventualities. When tasked to do a job properly and given the resources to do it, the investment more than pays dividends. But, and this is a big but, they need to be properly used, and employed with care. As with most things military, it is about knowing your tools, and what jobs to use them for.

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Remember the Falklands @ Portsmouth Dockyard

Myself and the HSO (History Support Officer) have just got back from the ‘Remember the Falklands‘ event at the Dockyard in Pompey today. HMS Dragon and HMS York were open to visitors, providing a contrast between the 1982 vintage of Royal Navy ship, and the modern escort fleet.

HMS Dragon

HMS Dragon

HMS Dragon

Dragon is the newest of the Type 45 Destroyers to join the fleet, having only arrived in Portsmouth a matter of months previously. As I have previously commented after visiting Daring and Dauntless, the space on these ships is incredible compared to their earlier counterparts. It’s such a privilege to look round such a clean, tidy new-smelling ship. You know when you buy a new car, and for a few months it has that new smell? Well, Dragon still has that.

OK, who let a ginger in the ops room?

The ops room in particular is incredible, the sheer amount of desks and monitors is a sight to behold. You get the impression that the skill in commanding a modern warship is how the officers – and warrants and CPO’s for that matter – learn to control and process what goes in and out of that inner sanctum. One thing that occurs to me… I’ve been on three Type 45 Destroyers now, and never been allowed onto the bridge – what is on the bridge of a T45 that we aren’t allowed to see?

HMS York

HMS York

HMS York

HMS York is a batch 3 Type 42 Destroyer, one of the ships that was hastily redesigned after the lessons of the Falklands were digested. Longer than her earlier counterparts, she has a more pronounced bow for improved seakeeping, and distinctive strengthening beams down the side. I believe that she’s up for decomissioning in the next year or so. The difference between her and Dragon is striking – so much less room, so much more cramped, and overall looking very tired. The funny thing is, that we were allowed to see a lot more on York – including the 1970’s looking Ops Room (half the size of Dragon’s), the bridge, and also ratings and officers quarters. The crew were also remarkably informative and chatty. It’s always a phenomenon looking round warships – some ratings look bored out of their minds, whilst others seem to love spinning a yarn.

Sea Dart - never to be fired again?

Sea Dart – never to be fired again?

Other Sights

As per usual at these kind of events the band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines played.

I also managed to get some good pictures of the new Up Harbour Ammunitioning Facility currently being constructed. The New UHAF is much closer to the Dockyard than before, not too far off the corner of Middle Slip and North Corner Jetties.

the new UHAF

the new UHAF

My conclusions about the day? I can’t stress enough how important these days are. The Royal Navy is notoriously bad at blowing its own trumpet and doing the PR thing. Everyone knows about the Eurofighter Typhoon thanks to the RAF’s PR department, but how many people are as aware of Type 45 Destroyers? The Royal Navy, if it want’s to be at the forefront of defence, needs to win hearts and minds at home as much as battles at sea.

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Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield (D80) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the sinking of the Belgrano and the Vulcan raid on Stanley airfield, there certainly seems to have been a feeling that the gloves were now off in the South Atlantic.

HMS Sheffield, the lead ship of the Type 42 class of Destroyers, was built at Vickers at Barrow, being launched in 1970 and commissioned in 1975. She was a Portsmouth based ship, as were the rest of the Type 42’s. The Sheffield had been away from home for quite some time, having been taking part in Exercise Spring Train on her way home from an Arabian Gulf Patrol when she was diverted down south.

When the Task Force entered the Exclusion Zone on 1 May, the three Type 42 Destroyers – Sheffield, Coventry and Glasgow – were ‘up front’ performing radar picket duty. Their Type 965 radar in particular gave good long-range coverage, and in that sense the Type 42’s were they eyes and ears of the task force, and the outer layer of the air defence ‘onion skin’ based around protecting the vital aircraft carriers. A very important task – which the modern Type 45’s are very much suited for – but a very lonely and dangerous job too.

It was known that the Argentines had purchased a number of French Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be launched from Super Etendard aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. Although the French had withdrawn their technical support as part of the EEC arms embargo, it was expected that the Argentines would at least attempt to use them. After the loss of the Belgrano, this suspicion was even more keenly felt.

HMS Sheffield was first spotted by an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft at 7.50am on 4 May. The Neptune tracked the Sheffield for the next two hours, obviously undetected. At 9.45am two Exocet-armed Super Etendard’s took off from Tierra del Fuego, refuelling from a KC-130 Hercules tanker on their way to the target. At 10.50am both aircraft ‘popped up’ from their low-level flight. After failing to sight the target initially, 25 miles later the Sheffield appeared on the Etendard’s radar screens.

Both Etendards launched their Exocet’s at 10am, at a range of 20 to 3 miles. The sea-skimming missiles raced towards the Sheffield. The Etendard’s had not been detected by the task force as had been expected – it was intended that anti-Exocet procedures would begin once the Etendard’s radar signature was detected. The missiles, however, were spotted by the other Type 42 Glasgow. Sheffield, however, appeared to be silent and inactive. She had been using her satellite communications, which rendered her Typ3 965 radar inoperable for a short time. Sheffield was silent, until the anonymous message was heard ‘ Sheffield is hit’.

One of the Exocets was eventually picked up by the Sheffield, but far too late to do much about it. Five seconds later, the missile struck Sheffield amidships, tearing a gash in her hull feet above the water line. Evidence suggests that the missiles warhead did not explode, but the ships fire main was fractured. The combination of this and the burning of un-spent missile fuel caused a fire to spread through parts of the ship. Eventually the fire was so hot that the ships paint bubbled and blistered, and the heat on the deck could be felt through boots. The Sheffield was effectively dead in the water.

Sheffield was taken in tow by HMS Yarmouth, but sank days later after water flooded through the gash in her side. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty of her crew were killed, most of whom were in the Galley at the time of the missile strike. As a Portsmouth based ship all of them were either from Portsmouth or had Portsmouth connections. Looking back, it is difficult not to form an opinion that the loss of the Sheffield – the first havy loss of the conflict – delivered a serious reality check to officials and public, many of whom might have been under the illusion that the Falklands might be an easy war.

As a result of the strike on the Sheffield, the Task Force changed it’s missile defence procedures. As soon as the Etendard’s radar signature was picked up, the codeword ‘handbrake’ would start the wholesale launching of chaff decoys, thousands of tiny metal strips that were intended to divert any missiles away from ships. The Argentines launched other Exocet strikes, but the only other ship to be sunk by one was the merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor, later in the war.

The official MOD report into the sinking – as is cutomary whenever a ship is damaged or lost – found that the ships fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures were poor, and criticised certain anonymous members of the crew, who are difficult to positively identify and the report is heavily redacted. When the Sheffield’s Captain, Sam Salt, landed on the flagship HMS Hermes, he was received in a cold manner, and all but left on his own according to eyewitnesses. This coldness would suggest that their was a feeling at the time that the Sheffield was caught with her pants down. It’s probably difficult for those of us who have not commanded a Destroyer in war to form any kind of opinion on this, except perhaps that in the ‘fog of war’ unfortunate events do sadly happen.

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Falklands 30 – the sinking of the Belgrano

The Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano lis...

The first heavy loss of life in the Falklands War occured when the British Submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine Crusier, the General Belgrano on 3 May 1982.

The ARA General Belgrano was a Brooklyn Class Cruiser, originally built for the US Navy as USS Phoenix. In that guise she served throughout the Second World War, before being sold to Argentina and renamed in 1955. In 1982 she had an armament of 15 6-inch guns, 5 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, as well as 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. In 1968 she was retro-fitted with Sea Cat missile systems, which we obsolescent in 1982. As a WW2 vintage ship she had relatively thick armour compared to other Falklands-ear ships, her main belt of armour being 5.5 inches thick, and her deck armour 2 inches. The Belgrano did not actually take part in the operations to invade the Islands – Operation Rosario – but eventually put to see from Ushaia in southern Argentina on 26 April, accompanied by her two destroyer escorts, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA ARA Bouchard (both also ex-US Navy ships).

The British battle group had entered the north east of the exclusion zone around the islands on 1 May. The Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, feared that the Belgrano and her escorts would form the southern part of a pincer attack by the Argentine fleet, with the northern pincer formed of the aircraft carrier Vienticino de Mayo. The de Mayo had actually been preparing to launch a Skyhawk strike on the British fleet on 2 May, when light winds made it impossible to launch aircraft. She was also escorted by two Type 42 Destroyers, Santissima Trinidad and Hercules. HMS Spartan had been assigned to track down the de Mayo, and although she never located the carrier, Woodward’s memoirs suggest that if she had, she would have been sunk.

There seems to have been a lot of controversy in recent years about the sinking of the Belgrano. It has been painted as a monstrous, heavy-handed or even illegal act by left-wingers, anti-war activits and Argentines alike. Nobody in Argentina – in particular men on the Belgrano – seems to have been aggrieved that the Conqueror attacked the Belgrano whilst she was outside the exclusion zone. Hovering around the edge of a war zone, with clearly hostile intent, is asking to be sunk. On 23 April a message was passed to the Argentine government via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, to inform that although the British Government had announced a maritime exclusion zone, it would not limit its actions to within this zone if hostile threats occured outside of the zone. This is an important point to make. Essentially, any Argentine ship leaving port was liable to be attacked.

Sandy Woodward later said that “the speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention”. The decision to torpedo the Belgrano was taken after much deliberation, though the military chain of command and at war cabinet level. It was not a decision that seems to have been taken lightly. Indeed, Conqueror seems to have been tracking the Belgrano for three days before she attacked – hardly ideal, militarily, as it placed the Conqueror at much risk, but it does show that due diligence was taken. We also need to recognise that the sinking of the Belgrano did represent a fine feat of arms by the Conqueror’s crew and her Captain Christopher Wreford-Brown. It certainly suggests that British submarine’s were very effective, not surprising given that they had spent years practising their craft in the North Atlantic shadow-boxing with the Soviet submarine fleet.

Interestingly, a book published in 2011 suggested that signals intelligence showed that the Belgrano was actually steaming towards a rendevouz inside the exclusion zone, which clearly would signal hostile intent. Accounts from survivors suggest that the ship was not in a high state of defence – neither the Belgrano nor her two destroyers were zig-zagging. Compare this lax state to some of the vigorous anti-submarine actions taken by the British task force during the war. It is absolutely tragic that over three hundred young men died when the Belgrano was sunk. But it is even more tragic that they were condemmed to their deaths by a Government and a Navy that sent young, poorly trained conscripts sea in an obsolete ship, with inadequate anti-submarine defences, lifejackets or liferafts.

What might have happened had the Belgrano not been sunk? Certainly, her 6-inch guns outranged and outgunned anything that the British fleet had. They were almost certainly outranged by surface missiles such as Exocet, but none the less the Belgrano and her task force, could, potentially, have caused some damage to the task force. In particular, if the de Mayo had managed to launch air strikes, and the Belgrano had appeared from the south, a double threat might have been a bit of a problem. Add into that mix the potential for Super Etendard Exocet strikes, then we can see that it was important for the British to remove whatever threats they could, however they could.

The sinking of the Belgrano not only removed the Argentine Navy‘s second most dangerous ship from the war, it also had a serious morale effect – not only did it provide a boost early in the war, but it also compelled the Argentine Navy – agitators in starting the war in the first place – to scurry back into port and not sail out again for the rest of the conflict. This superiority of the waves made the British Task Force’s job that little less difficult when it came to gaining a degree of air superiority, and then eventually landing on the Falklands.

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