The Air War and the Battle of San Carlos

Operation Sutton 21st – 23rd May 1982

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

As a prelude to the British Landings, the Argentine observation post on Fanning Head needed to be neutralised. Fanning Head is a towering headland nearly 800 feet high and overlooks San Carlos Water. This operation was conducted by HMS Antrim, two Wessex helicopter, around thirty-five men of SBS, a Royal Marine interpreter and a Naval Gunfire Support Officer. A helicopter flew in a pathfinder party from the SBS who had been issued with thermal imaging equipment. They identified the Argentine positions for the main party, which arrived later.

The SBS “killer group” took up positions overlooking the Argentines who were dug in, while HMS Antrim shelled their positions. Captain Rod Bell RM, who spoke Spanish, called out to the Argentines an invited them to surrender. The thermal imagers identified that the Argentines were moving towards the British. The SBS unleashed a torrent of hate until Captain Bell asked them to check fire and once again asked for a surrender. The Argentines ran up white flags and were captured. When their positions were searched later, eleven bodies were found in the rough ground.

Diversionary attacks were carried out by the SAS on Darwin and Goose Green, while HMS Glamorgan operating in Berkeley Sound shelled Argentine positions around Port Stanley. During the SAS raid on Darwin and Goose Green, the Argentine garrison estimated that they were being attacked by a unit of Battalion strength. The garrison at Goose Green airfield was subsequently heavily reinforced.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

In the hours of darkness on 21st May 1982, the British Amphibious Task Group landed 4,000 men on the beaches in and around San Carlos Water, a bay that faced into Falkland Sound. The Men of 3 Commando Brigade comprised of the following:

2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment from the RORO Ferry Norland.

40 Commando Royal Marines from HMS Fearless, 3rd battalion the Parachute Regiment from HMS Intrepid.

45 Commando from RFA Stromness.

In addition Rapier point air defences batteries and 105mm guns were put ashore by helicopter. There were however delays in setting up the Rapier as they had been stored well below decks to protect the delicate electronics.

By dawn on 22nd May the troops secured the bridgehead. 2 Para and 40 Commando pushed forward and secured the heights of the Verde Mountains and the Sussex Mountains, which dominated San Carlos and they overlooked the bays and Falkland Sound. While the Paras were clearing San Carlos settlement, a Gazelle helicopter was hit in the tail rotor and crashed into the sea. Argentine machine guns fired at the crew in the water and Sergeant Evans later died of gunshot wounds. A second Gazelle went to the assistance of the first and it too was shot down, crashing into a hillside. Both crew members were killed.

During the first day of the landings, the RAF Harrier GR3s were in action providing close support to a patrol of the SAS who had discovered an Argentine helicopter hide. The helicopters were moved from Port Stanley at night to an area near Mount Kent to protect them from a Pebble Island type of raid. The SAS patrol reported that they could be attacked at first light, before being moved back to Stanley. A brace of GR3s went in to attack the helicopters with their 35mm cannons. Squadron Leader Pook and Flight Lieutenant Hare made several passes over the base and destroyed a Chinook and two Pumas.

A second brace of GR3s were sent on an armed reconnaissance to Port Howard. The lead aircraft could not retract its undercarriage and had to return to the carrier. Flight Lieutenant Glover pressed on alone to attack Argentine positions. The forward air controller asked Glover to photograph the area and as it passed over them, the Harrier was hit three times in the port wing. It rolled and Glover waited for the aircraft to right itself before he ejected. Glover seriously injured his shoulder as the rockets blew him clear of the aircraft, and had to be rescued from the sea by civilians and Argentine troops. He was treated for his injuries and taken to Argentina, to be released after the war.

A field hospital was set up in disused buildings at Ajax Bay. From that night, and every night until the 14th June Argentine Air Force (FAA) Camberras attempted to bomb the troop concentrations in and around San Carlos. These became an irritant, which kept the troops awake at night. The bombing attacks by day were in a totally different league. The FAA fielded A4 Skyhawks, Israeli-built Daggers, Mirage IIIs and Pucaras operating from the many improvised airstrips around the islands. The fast jets had to operate from mainland Argentina because the RAF’s Black Buck operations had effectively interdicted Port Stanley Airport to fast jet operations and only the A4s could have operated from the short runway in any case. The Argentine fighter bombers were carrying a minimum of bombload with a maximum amount of fuel. But by God, did their pilots know how to fight their aircraft.

The Argentine pilots had a difficult run-in to their targets, which were the ships in San Carlos. They had to follow the terrain across West Falkland to avoid the radar and anti- aircraft defences, flying a high-low-high mission profile. They would be easy meat for the Harriers coming in laden with bombs or going home, short of fuel. An approach from the north or south would make them dangerously short of fuel for the return flight. As they came in across Falkland Sound into San Carlos, the Argentine pilots had a minimum amount of time to visually acquire their targets. But it was a double-edged sword. The ships’ radar had a minimum amount of time to acquire, lock on and fire the anti-aircraft missiles. The British ships’ issued GPMGs and rifles to every member of their compliments’ with eyesight and a pulse, with orders to fire at every fixed wing aircraft they saw. The Harrier CAP wisely gave San Carlos a wide berth.

It quickly became obvious that the British ships’ anti-aircraft defences weren’t up to the task. The anti-aircraft systems were having the same problems of acquisition and lock-on as the Argentine pilots. The performance of the Rapier missile system was particularly disappointing. HMS Ardent was sunk on 21st May. HMS Antelope was sunk on 24th May. HMS Coventry was sunk when she was ordered to draw the Argentine aircraft away from the other ships in San Carlos, a mission she successfully completed. HMS Argonaut and HMS Brilliant were badly damaged when multiple bombs hit the ships but failed to detonate.

Dug in on the Sussex Mountains, the men of 2 Para watched the little fighter bombers jinking through the ships and the maelstrom of fire and tracer below, the light reflecting off their twisting wings, like sunlight off minnows at the bottom of a pond. They mounted a running commentary; oooooohhhs and ahhhhhhs for particularly impressive displays of Argentine airmanship. Spontaneous applause when an aircraft was hit by a missile and cheers when the pilot ejected safely. Military personnel can be a perverse and difficult bunch to understand for some, but they tend to admire bravery and tenacity, whoever displays it.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Argentine pilots were pushing their envelope by the time they made their final approach to San Carlos Water. No air-to-air refuelling for them. That was for the elite pilots of the Exocet-carrying Super Etendards who were tasked to sink the British carriers. The fighter bombers had the long transit across the South Atlantic in single engine aircraft. Any malfunction or flame-out and they would die alone and never found in the Southern Ocean and most of their aircraft were over fifteen-years-old. The Argentine Airforce was the Cinderella Service of the Military Junta because the lion’s share of the Defence budget had been allocated to upgrading their Navy.

To avoid the concentrated fire in San Carlos, the Argentine pilots flew and released their 1,000lb British-made bombs at ultra-low level. The bombs were fused by an impeller which had to spin for a required number of revolutions before the bomb became armed. The bombs themselves were retarded so that the explosions didn’t hit the dropping aircraft and many of the pilots were not climbing to the necessary release height before dropping their bombs. They did manage to solve the problem by fitting improved retarding devices.

Admiral Woodward in his autobiography blamed the BBC World Service for disclosing the information, which led to the Argentines changing their fuses and settings. He described the BBC as being more concerned with being “fearless seekers of the truth,” than the lives of British Servicemen. Some including me would probably consider the BBC to be a bunch of traitorous bastards. But of course it is a national treasure because of the unique way it’s funded.

Thirteen bombs hit British ships without exploding. HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope were lost despite the failure of the bombs and were destroyed while attempts were made to defuse the unexploded ordnance. Lord Craig, the Retired Marshall of the Royal Air Force is reported to have said: “Six better fuses and we would have lost.” The British lost one Destroyer and two Frigates, with eight ships damaged and forty-nine men killed. Well done the BBC! The Argentine air force lost forty-five aircraft including helicopters. Fifty-five Argentine aircrew were killed. Sea Harriers claimed to have shot down twenty-one enemy aircraft for no loses in air-to-air combat. I know that I would rather share a slit trench with an Argentine Air Force pilot than a BBC reporter.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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