Exocet – the missile that almost cost Britain the Falklands War

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Exocet is the French word for a flying fish. It is also an anti-shipping missile that can be launched from submarines, surface ships, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The Exocet designed and built by Aerospatiale and Nord is a compact missile that is most effective against small to medium sized targets such as corvettes, frigates and destroyers. The missile is guided inertially during its approach phase and then switches to active radar homing as it enters the final target acquisition phase. To avoid detection, the missile surface skims at one to two metres depending on sea state. This effectively means that the missile approaches below the ship’s radar and usually can only be detected at a range of around 6,000 metres before impact. This gives the target ship precious little time to deploy countermeasures and activate the close-in weapons system (CIWS). The missile’s range is 70km.

So how did a pariah state run by a military Junta, which tortured and disappeared tens of thousands of its own citizens and foreign nationals as well, get its hands on such a sophisticated and deadly weapons system. The simple answer was that the French gave it to them, with tacit approval of the French government. But before we start our howls of protest, let’s not forget that the British government had already sold Argentina warships that defence cuts had decided were too expensive to run, man and keep in service.

The French had been training Argentine pilots, mechanics and support staff at Landivisiau in France since 1980. The missiles were shipped to Argentina where French technicians would set up and calibrate the systems. The French had set up an arms conduit to Argentina via Peru, but MI6 was well aware of this, as was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who sent the following telegram to the French President.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

France was playing a double game during the Falklands War. Her government was saying that technicians had been withdrawn from Argentina, when in fact they were not ordered home and actively encouraged to stay. The French knew they had a potentially, extremely lucrative missile system and they wanted to test it on Royal Navy ships. Killing British sailors was a bonus. If diplomatically things started to get a bit uncomfortable for the French, Israel could fill the gaps. British diplomats cited evidence that Israel had supplied the Argentine military junta with arms that were used against the Task Force during the campaign to liberate the islands. Israeli military exports before the war included the Skyhawk jets that would later be used to bomb British warships, killing dozens of soldiers, sailors and marines. (Source, Daily Telegraph 24th August 2016). As soon as the cease fire agreement was signed France resumed their shipment of the remaining 7 (of 12) Super Etendard and their missiles to Argentina.

First Strike – HMS Sheffield

On the early morning of the 4th May 1982, the main force of the British Task Force was 75 nautical miles south-east of Port Stanley. The fleet was in a high state of readiness as there had been several reports of Argentine air activity. A second Black-Buck mission had taken place, Vulcan B2 XM607 had bombed Stanley Airfield the previous night. Lynx helicopters patrolled in the vicinity of Stanley to pinpoint the locations of the Argentine radar sites. At 0815 an Argentine Neptune maritime reconnaissance aircraft detected the radar emissions from one of the British type 42 destroyers. The position was plotted and the assumption made that where there was a Type 42, it was more than likely there was one of the carriers. Ninety minutes later two Super Etendards of 2nd Escuadrilla de Caza y Ataque, each carrying the air-launched version of the Exocet anti-ship missile, took off from their base at Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego. Unlike a previously attempted raid, the Etendards successfully refuelled from a Hercules tanker and then descended to sea level as they approached the estimated position of the British fleet. With the Neptune acting in an AEWAC capacity, the two Argentine jets approached under the radar and in radio silence.

At 1035 the Neptune climbed to just under 4,000 feet and detected a large and two medium sized contacts and this information was relayed to the Super Etendards. The bombers climbed but failed to locate the contacts and dropped back down. They covered another 25 miles and tried again. This time targets appeared on their radar screens. The Argentine pilots inputted the coordinates into their weapons system and launched their Exocet missiles at a range of approximately 25 miles. Their job done, the Super Etendards turned for home, landing at Rio Grande at 1204. The Argentine air tasking that morning had consisted of the two Super Etendards, the KC130 tanker with an escort of two Dagger fighters, the Neptune and Lear Jet in support.

At 1000 HMS Sheffield was at defence watch readiness two. She was acting as Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) picket for the Task Force. The main threat was seen as one of the Argentine 209 submarines, which had been given a higher priority than the air threat. HMS Glasgow was on high readiness and detected the two Super Etendards on her main surveillance radar 40 miles out and immediately communicated the warning “Handbrake.” Sheffield failed to go to action stations because its own radar and ECM hadn’t detected aircraft or missiles. The captain wasn’t informed and no countermeasures such as activating the Sea Dart missiles or deploying chaff were considered.

Finally, Sheffield picked up the incoming missiles on her type 965 radar, the Ops Officer informing the Missile Director. Sheffield was not fitted with ECM equipment and still did not go to action stations. Deck crews spotted smoke and glows low on the horizon, five seconds later an Exocet hit the destroyer midships, eight feet above the waterline. The second Exocet missed and splashed harmlessly into the sea, half a mile off her port beam.

There is some dispute as to whether the main charge of the Exocet’s warhead actually exploded, however, whether it detonated or not, the ensuing fire gutted the ship and killed 30 sailors. Standard operating procedures were adapted so that ships under attack would turn into the direction of attack, activate all ECM if fitted, release chaff and put up a barrage with everything they could. It was all too late for the “Shiny Sheff” and her crew.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

A Mortal Blow – The Atlantic Conveyor

The Atlantic Conveyor was a 14,950 ton roll-on, roll-off container ship, registered in Liverpool and taken up from trade by the MoD in April 1982. She was refitted to enable her to operate S/VTOL Harrier operations and heavy lift helicopters. The ship was not fitted with either active or passive defensive measures, as someone in the MoD (as always it’s impossible to find out who), decided that she was not a “high value” target. Sailing for Ascension Island on 25 April 1982, Atlantic Conveyor carried a cargo of six Wessex helicopters from 848 Naval Air Squadron and five RAF Chinook HC.1s from No. 18 Squadron RAF. At Ascension, she picked up eight Fleet Air Arm Sea Harriers (809 Squadron) and six RAF Harrier GR.3 jump jets.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

On the ship’s arrival at Ascension, one Chinook was unloaded to support operations on the island. It continued south and arrived with the task force in mid-May. The GR3s went to HMS Hermes, while the Sea Harriers were distributed between the squadrons operating from both Hermes and Invincible. The freeing up of the Atlantic Conveyor’s flight deck allowed the Chinooks to be prepared for operations.

The 25th of May was Argentina’s National Day and in the afternoon. HMS Coventry was attacked by Argentine fighter bombers and sunk with conventional bombs. HMS Broadsword picked up the survivors from Coventry. Many miles away to the east, on board Conveyor preparations were being made for the ship to sail into San Carlos through the night to be ready to unload helicopters and stores at first light. This part of the mission carried a relatively high risk that the ship would be found and attacked before the disembarkation was complete. If everything went wrong then the plan was to beach her and to try and rescue as many stores as possible. If the Conveyor survived, she was to be used a helicopter support ship. The crew members were each issued with a copy of the ‘Geneva Convention’ rules for prisoners in case of capture.

Around dusk on the 25th, The Atlantic Conveyor was sailing in formation with the ammunition ship RFA Regent and the carrier Hermes. One of the Atlantic Conveyor’s Chinooks, Bravo November was moving stores from ship to ship. The off-duty helicopter aircrews were relaxing in the wardroom with a few beers, before continuing operations the next day.

Two Argentine Super Etendards had taken off earlier in the afternoon, and with the aid of air-to-air refuelling, had flown a long dogleg to attack the carriers from an unexpected direction. They had been practising attacks on the Argentine ships sold by the MoD, because their radar profile was similar to the Royal Navy ships. They had perfected a technique known as “pecking the cone,” where they flew below the radar, occasionally popping up so that a passive radar sensor in the aircrafts’ tail fin could detect the strength and direction of the British ships’ active radar emissions.
The first British ship to spot the incoming aircraft was the outlying destroyer HMS Exeter, which detected the Super Etendards as they popped up to acquire the targets. The notified the flag ship and the frigate Ambuscade fired chaff. The Argentine pilots spotted two carrier-sized targets, locked on and fired two Exocet missiles at a range of 30 miles. The missiles’ tracks were heading straight for Hermes.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

On the Atlantic Conveyor, the crews watched the ships manoeuvring frantically and the clouds of chaff erupting in the sky. The Conveyor had been stern on to the missile attack, but the flagship ordered her to turn hard to port exposing the full radar profile. Hermes was tucked in behind the RFA and the Conveyor. The two missiles appeared through the Ambuscade’s smoke and slammed into the port side of the merchant ship. As well as the explosions, the Exocets’ fuel ignited flammable stores within the ships open internal decks. The crew attempted to fight the fires, but the order to abandon ship was given and a few hours later the bow magazine exploded, gutting the ship. Twelve of the Atlantic Conveyor’s crew were killed including the captain.  Nothing on board was recoverable and she sank on the 28th May whilst under tow.

HMS Glamorgan

The ubiquitous HMS Glamorgan was a County Class cruiser. As well as supporting the raid on Pebble Island by Special Forces, she had been guarding the repair and logistics area 200 miles away from the Falkland Islands. On 11th June she was ordered to provide fire support to the Royal Marines during their attack on Two Sisters Mountain. On the morning of 12th June, Glamorgan was hit by an Exocet fired from the shore by an improvised missile launcher. She was steaming at 20 knots some 18 nautical miles from the shore and detecting the incoming missile, attempted a rapid turn away from the incoming Exocet. The missile struck the port side, adjacent to the ship’s hangar. The turn had prevented the missile penetrating and raking the stern.

The blast travelled forwards and penetrated the hangar door, destroying the ship’s Wessex helicopter and causing a fierce fire. Fourteen crew members were killed, but the fires were extinguished and the ship underway by 1000. Repairs were conducted in San Carlos Bay. The Argentine garrison on the Falkland Islands surrendered on 14th June and Glamorgan arrived back at Portsmouth on 10th July 1982 after 104 days at sea.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Approximately 50% of the Exocets fired during the Falklands War hit their targets. The missiles gutted one ship, sank another and severely damaged a third. Fifty-six British and other nationalities in British service were killed. Over a hundred were burned, blinded maimed and traumatised. The missiles had caused severe wobbling by some members of Margaret Thatcher’s War Cabinet and completely changed the conduct of the war. It’s not difficult to imagine what would have happened if missiles had hit either of the carriers, both militarily and diplomatically. The French certainly seemed to have got their money’s worth.

Lest we forget.

© Blown Periphery 2018