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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And they flew in every kind of weather, day or night. “If we could see the wake and see the deck when we got there, we could land very safely,” says Thomas. One Harrier was guided home by flares tossed behind the ship.

Because the haul to the carriers was so long, the Argentine radar at Port Stanley could watch the British fighters come and go. The fighter-bombers were now getting through a radar-detected hole in the CAP. Two days after British forces were well entrenched on the beach, Grupo 5 Skyhawks darted through such a hole, this time going after HMS Antelope. “I remember this mission in particular,” says Carlos Rinke. “In the three minutes I had contact, flying with Guadagnini. He died in that mission,” shot down by a Sea Wolf from Broadsword. “That was the mission I feel in a special way because I miss my partner, my leader.” But they punched two holes in Antelope.

Inflight refueling gave the Skyhawks greater flexibility than the Daggers. “Because of air refueling,” Rinke continues, “we could fly in low levels 70 miles from the target, then 10 to 15 miles, about 10 to 20 minutes, at 30 to 60 feet. The last five minutes to the target we needed to fly very very very low. Ten feet to 30 feet. We put the throttles to maximum but the plane probably flew 450 knots, 480 knots, in low level. We reckoned we had about a 50 percent probability of returning to base.”

That night, one of the unexploded bombs lodged in Antelope detonated, setting her afire. The frigate sank the next morning. And a Sea Harrier crashed on takeoff from Hermes, killing Lieutenant Commander Gordon Batt. The next day brought further losses of Argentine aircraft but little damage to the ships, as the bombs were still not arming.

Then Bomb Alley went quiet for 24 hours as the adversaries, like knife-wielding combatants in a room gone suddenly dark, briefly pulled back. May 25 would mark the 192nd anniversary of Argentina’s independence, to be celebrated with deadly fireworks. Expecting trouble, Admiral John Woodward moved his battle group closer, barely 60 miles east of Port Stanley, to give the Sea Harriers more time on station, and put Broadsword and Coventry on guard north of Pebble Island.

A flock of Skyhawks probed San Carlos through the morning but were deflected by anti-aircraft fire, which destroyed one of them. Always helpful, the Argentine gunners at Goose Green shot down another. Later, Captain Hugo Palaver’s Skyhawk was killed at long range by a Sea Dart. “He was our squadron leader and a very respectful person,” Carlos Rinke says. “I was very sad about his death.” Afterward, he adds, “the thinking was a little bit…vengeful.”

Perhaps in that spirit, six more Skyhawks headed into battle. Two turned back with technical problems, but four pressed on, attacking each northern picket ship in pairs. Sea Harriers saw the Skyhawks but were warned off by Broadsword—just as the ship’s radar lock-on broke. Rinke and his leader made their run. Three bombs missed, but one skipped into the stern and fell into the sea on the far side without exploding.

The two Skyhawks heading for Coventry were also seen, but the Sea Harriers were again told to break off while the ship’s anti-aircraft did the job. Coventry missed with a Sea Dart; then, as she maneuvered to present a smaller target, she blanked out Broadsword’s radar. First Lieutenant Mariano Velasco put three bombs into Coventry, all exploding deep inside the hull. Within minutes, the destroyer, swarming with rescue boats and helicopters,

Rinke calls it their most effective attack. “We went with four planes and returned with four planes,” he says.

Even as Coventry died, two Super Etendards were taking off, each with an Exocet. With no Neptune to guide them, the Argentines improvised a clever alternative to find the battle group. Harriers were instructed to drop below the horizon of the Port Stanley radar 50 miles from their ships, but their disappearance from the radar screen had, over time, pointed toward one area. It wasn’t perfect; a few days earlier, an Exocet mission had been scrubbed when no ships were detected. This time, the Supers flew well north to meet a tanker, then turned south to stalk the British fleet. When they sensed radar emissions, they dropped down to 50 feet.


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