Air War in the Falklands

Grand miscalculations, unknown odds, miserable weather, vast distances—and unlikely adversaries

A Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan strategic bomber. (Sgt. David S. Nolan, US Air Force)
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The Agave radar signal alerted the British ships, but it was too late. The Argentine pilots fired from about 12 miles out, then banked sharply for home. One Exocet fell into the sea. The other hit Sheffield amidships. The warhead failed to explode, but the impact and fire inflicted grave damage. Twenty men were killed, and five days later the ship was allowed to sink. While the destroyer burned, Hermes launched three Sea Harriers against a landing strip at Goose Green, where some Argentine aircraft were parked. On the first pass, the Sea Harrier flown by Lieutenant Nick Taylor was brought down by anti-aircraft fire, and he was killed.

Stunned by these losses, the battle group moved farther offshore and contemplated the day’s result. The precious Sea Harriers, it was decided, would concentrate on achieving air supremacy. The RAF GR.3s, fitted with a ground attack computer and navigation system, could take up the high-risk attack role when they arrived.

But the run of bad luck hadn’t ended. Two days later, two Sea Harriers on CAP were vectored to investigate a low, fast-moving echo. John Eyton-Jones and Al Curtis, among the most experienced British pilots, descended through fog almost to sea level and were never heard from again. Suddenly, the battle group was down to just 17 Sea Harriers.

The Argentine air force also had its omens. On May 9, a flight of two Skyhawks from Grupo 4 flew into a mountain shrouded in cloud. Three days later, Grupo 5 lost three Skyhawks to Sea Wolf hits. Another foursome ran in moments later, and this time the Sea Wolf system balked. A Skyhawk dropped two bombs, which skipped over a frigate and into the sea. One Skyhawk managed to hit HMS Glasgow, but the bomb passed through the vessel and exploded in the sea. The pilot had little chance to celebrate; his compatriots at Goose Green shot him down, and he died in the crash.

Seeing so much smoke, the Argentines believed they were scoring heavily. In fact, their British-made thousand-pounders weren’t detonating. Fused to provide enough time for the airplane to get clear before they exploded, the bombs had no time to arm at the low altitudes where the Argentines were flying. To arm and explode, they needed to be dropped from a greater height—at least 200 feet—and at that altitude, the aircraft became vulnerable to missiles. BBC World Service would reveal that little secret, but not until late May.

Her decks, hold, and containers crammed with aircraft and materiel, Atlantic Conveyor arrived in the area on May 18. Sea Harriers and GR.3s had boarded the ship a fortnight earlier at Ascension Island, landing on the narrow deck and parking in an improvised revetment of containers. All of the aircraft except one deck-alert jet had been cocooned against the sea. Now crews unwrapped them and flew the GR.3s to Hermes, and the Sea Harriers to the 800 and 801 Squadrons on both carriers.

Aboard Hermes, the RAF detachment encountered little of the Fleet Air Arm’s rivalry—none of the UFOs are real; it’s the RAF that’s an illusion kind of thing. “It wasn’t just ‘The Crabs arrived,’” quips Peter Squire, referring to the Royal Navy sobriquet for members of the RAF, the color of whose uniforms calls to mind a bluish anchor-chain lubricant called “crabfat.” “Many of the people knew one another, had a few beers together. That’s not to say there weren’t problems,” Squire says.

For one thing, the RAF aircraft had gone down as replacements, with minimal ground crew. But the GR.3s were now considered reinforcements, and their maintenance fell to an already overextended naval staff. Further, on a rolling deck, the inertial navigation systems were impossible to set. “With no inertial nav, we had no dynamic means of aiming bombs,” Squire explains. “We went back to the stopwatch and fixed crosshairs.” Still, two days after joining Hermes, Squire’s GR.3s were in the fight.

The action now shifted to a bay called San Carlos Water, where the British were assembling to land troops. Here, the surrounding terrain and narrow bay forced the Argentine aircraft through a gauntlet of warships stationed along predictable approaches. Like the British infantry’s square, it was a defense that could be broken, but only by sustained and overwhelming force. The Argentines never cracked it wide open, but not for lack of trying. The press would call this desolate place Bomb Alley, and with good reason.

Weather blinded the Argentines to the May 21 landing, enabling the British to get a beachhead well established. But the sky suddenly cleared, revealing a tableau of ships unloading troops and materiel, with helicopters fluttering over them like moths. After some feints, what would prove a day-long wave of Argentine attacks broke over San Carlos Water. First came six Daggers, unseen and hurrying in from the north. They went after Antrim and managed one hit with a bomb that lodged deep in the ship but failed to explode.


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