Tag Archives: Stanley Falkland Islands

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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