Air and naval actions between 2nd May and 16th May
Air and naval actions between 2nd May and 16th May
The 48 hours after the sinking of the General Belgrano were relatively quiet. During the night of 2 May an Argentine Naval patrol vessel opened fire on a patrolling Sea King helicopter of 826 Squadron. Early in the morning of 3 May two Lynx helicopters from HMS Coventry and Glasgow armed with Sea Skuas were sent out to locate this vessel and attack it. The offending craft was the Comodoro Somellera, an armed patrol craft which was searching for the crew of the Canberra bomber shot down the previous day. The first Lynx, flown by Lt Hubert Ledingham and Lt Commander Alvin Rich sank the vessel with hits being scored by both its missiles. This was the first operational firing of the Sea Skua. The helicopter was then fired on by a second undetected vessel, the Alférez Sobral, which the second Lynx attacked and badly damaged, killing the Captain and seven crew members. The damaged patrol ship limped back to Argentina several days later.
There was one other loss on 3 May, an Aermacchi MB.339A light attack aircraft of 1 Escuadrilla de Ataque was on a local flight from Stanley airfield when it crashed in bad weather on return to the airfield.
On the night of the 3rd May another Black Buck mission took place and again Vulcan B2 XM607 bombed Stanley Airfield. More information on this can be found on the Black Buck pages.
The early morning of the 4th May passed without any major incidents. The main part of the British fleet was 75 nautical miles to the south east of Stanley. Morale was high in the light of the successes thus far, although the fleet was in a high state of tension as there had been several tentative reports of Argentine air activity, and it was realised that a strong reaction to their presence must come soon. Lynx helicopters undertook patrols around Stanley to pinpoint the positions of Argentine radar systems. At 0815 hrs an Argentine reconnaissance aircraft, in this case an old piston engined Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, was sufficiently close to detect the radar emissions from one of the British Type 42 destroyers. The position was plotted and it was assumed that the carriers would be just to the east of the contact. Ninety minutes later, two Super Etendards of 2 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 the previously attempted raid, the Etendards successfully refuelled from a Hercules and then descended to sea level as they approached the estimated position of the British fleet. The aircraft, flown with great skill by Lt Commander Bedacarratz and Lt. Mayora, did not communicate with each other but were updated from the Neptune reconnaissance aircraft, and thus were successful in making an undetected approach. Around 25 miles out from the carriers they climbed to 120 ft and detected one large target and two smaller ones.
At 1104 hrs local time, having set the internal guidance systems of the Exocets to the targets they released their missiles and turned for home. While the enemy aircraft were running in to the attack, Able Seaman Rose, and air defence operator aboard HMS Glasgow, detected what was thought to be radar emissions from the Etendard's targeting systems, then as the Etendards pulled up the aircraft themselves were fleetingly detected before they descended again and turned home. An alert to the fleet was sent out, and HMS Glasgow fired chaff rockets to provide false radar targets. By this time, however, the missiles were already in flight, on an attack profile which was only than two minutes long from the point of launch to the targets. The first missile headed straight for the nearest ship, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield. Unfortunately, HMS Sheffield was using her SCOT sattelite communications system, sending routine messages at what was considered a quiet and threat-free time. The frequencies used blotted out the radar emmissions that might have warned of both the Etendards and the Exocet missiles presence, so no evasive action was taken. The second missile headed for the main group of ships but ran out of fuel and dropped harmlessly into the sea.
The first Exocet hit HMS Sheffield's starboard side, at an angle and around the midpoint of the ship. It punched through the outer skin and disintegrated inside Sheffield. Luckily the warhead did not explode, saving a great many lives, but the rocket fuel started a fire in the ship which spread rapidly. The main fire-fighting system had been cut, and all power was lost. Fire-fighting efforts began using a bucket-chain, the only option left. The Lynx helicopter lifted from the stern and began evacuating casualties, joined quickly in this effort by Sea Kings from other ships. Despite the arrival of portable pumps from other ships, the crew were forced back into the bow and stern sections by the fire which still raged out of control four hours after the ship had first been hit. A six man team in the computer room led by Lt. Commander John Woodhead struggled to get the ships weapons systems back on line and restore power. Their lines of retreat were cut off by fire and the entire team were overcome by smoke and fumes.
The crew were forced to retreat on deck in the bow section, but Petty Officer David Briggs returned several times below decks to retreive important equipment. He did not return from his last trip below having been overcome by smoke. Captain Sam Salt had no further choice, and despite the valiant fight by the whole crew, the order to abandon ship was given. After only forty minutes all the survivors were off the ship. Twenty men were killed in the attack and twenty-four were injured, four of them seriously. 242 men escaped without injury. However, their ship refused to sink, despite the damage. HMS Sheffield was towed out to sea where due to the heavy swell that developed she finally capitulated, becoming a war grave for the bodies of the 19 men still on board.
About an hour after HMS Sheffield was hit, three Sea Harriers from HMS Hermes attacked the airfield at Goose Green. The first two aircraft were to drop cluster bombs and the third three 1,000 lb bombs. However, one of the lead pair of Sea Harriers, flown by Lt Nick Taylor, was hit by anti-aircraft fire as it came in over the sea and it crashed just short of the airfield. Lt. Taylor was killed and given a military burial by the Argentinians. This was the first Sea Harrier lost by the fleet. These losses had two immediate effects. Admiral Woodward, realising the threat of the Exocets in the face of a lack of airborne radar cover, pulled the fleet back to the limit of the Etendard's range. The Sea Harriers were taken off direct attacks for the time being, toss-bombing from a greater distance became the operational norm. More Combat Air Patrols were instituted to maintain better air cover, and due to the greater range, the Sea Harriers also had further to fly to reach their targets. It was a black time for the British Task Force.
The second loss of Sea Harriers is still something of a mystery. On the 6 May, two Sea Harriers, flown by the highly experienced pilots Lt Commander John Eyton-Jones and Lt Al Curtiss on routine patrol were on vectored to a possible radar contact. Both aircraft flew to the contact independently from each other as the visibility was very bad. As they descended toward their contact, their radar blips, still well apart, disappeared into the ground return from the radar at low level. The Sea Harriers were never seen again. As the Argentinians made no claims it is thought they collided in the low visibility, a tragic loss.
No other action occurred until the 8th May. During the night HMS Brilliant was sent north to "terrorize the north end of Falkland Sound". The frigate trailed her coat in full view of the Argentine positions, even leaving her lights on, but no response was forthcoming. At the same time, HMS Alacrity was sent to shell Stanley again. She fired 90 shells at suspected enemy positions, but again failed to draw any kind of response so both ships returned to the main fleet.
At dawn of 9 May a '42-22 missile trap' was sent to Stanley in the form of the destroyer HMS Coventry and the frigate HMS Broadsword. The plan was for the Type 42's Sea Dart missile system to be able to attack any raider at medium range, while the Type 22's Sea Wolf missiles would attack any aircraft that penetrated to close range. It was risky sending 2 ships so close to an enemy airfield in broad daylight, but something had to be done to draw the Argentinian aircraft up to enable the Task FOrce to destroy them before the landing ships and vulnerable troopships arrived. As part of the plan, two Sea Harriers were sent to bomb Stanley airfield again, but low cloud forced them to abort this mission. Instead they carried out a patrol at low to medium level, during which they detected the Argentine trawler Narwal. The ship had already been chased away from the area once by HMS Alacrity on the night the Task Force entered the Total Exclusion Zone some ten days previously. The Sea Harriers fired their cannon in front of the trawler in an attempt to stop her, but got no response. A second pass was made, and the Sea Harriers dropped their bombs, one of which hit the trawler, but did not explode as the fuse had been set for a drop from 5,000 ft. The Sea Harriers were forced to withdraw due to fuel constraints, and were replaced by two more. These two also attacked with their cannons, causing severe damage and a few casualties on board the Narwal. An SBS boarding party was helicoptered in by Sea King and took the ship without a fight. Despite outraged Argentine claims of British attacks on a unarmed vessel, documents and a naval officer found aboard the trawler proved that Narwal had been operating in the role of fleet shadower, so this perfectly legitimate action kept further British ship movements secret. This attack prompted a strong response, and the '42-22 missile trap' was put into action. A Hercules transport aircraft with four escorting fighters was detected approaching the Islands. At extreme range HMS Coventry fired three Sea Dart missiles when the aircraft were still 40 miles out, and obviously believed themselves to be safely far from the Britsh fleet. Two of the missiles hit two of the escorting Skyhawk fighter-bombers, destroying both of them and killing their pilots. Three hours later HMS Coventry picked up another target at much closer range. Another Sea Dart was fired, destroying the Puma helicopter which was going to the assistance of the Narwal.
On 10 May Commander Chris Craig, Captain of HMD Alacrity was ordered to sail up Falkland Sound from south to north and carry out important reconnaissance at the same time. It was not yet certain where the British landings would take place, but the fact that the area along the coast of Falkland Sound was being considered could not have escaped anyone's attention. In the afternoon she reconnoitred the south coasts of East and West Falkland with help from her Lynx. Just before midnight she entered the southern straits of the sound, her approach masked by the weather as the area was covered in low cloud, mist and rain. The Lynx was launched again, despite the appaling flying conditions, to reconnoitre Fox Bay and act as a diversion to take Argentine attention away from the ship. Soon after this reconnaissance HMS Alacrity detected a moving radar contact further up the sound. She fired a star shell to try and identify the contact visually, but this was not possible in the dreadful weather. Alacrity opened fire with air-burst rounds so not to cause the contact much damage, even though it was unlikely to be a British or neutral vessel considering the location. The contact was seen to be fleeing for cover toward the shore, so high explosive shells were fired and the contact was destroyed. The mystery vessel turned out to be the Argentine naval transport Isla de los Estados, which at the time was carrying 325,000 gallons of aviation fuel and military vehicles. This was the only action to take place between surface ships during the whole of the conflict. HMS Alacrity carried on up the sound without further incident and was met by sister ship HMS Arrow at the northern end. Both ships then returned to the main fleet.
The next action did not occur until 12 May. A 42-22 combination of HMS Glasgow and Brilliant were now stationed off Stanley. HMS Glasgow shelled targets on the shore during the morning and eventually drew a strong response to the ship's presence. No fewer than eight Skyhawk fighter-bombers were sent to attack the ships, the lead two pairs arriving just as the Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol was in the process of handing over. The first four Skyhawks came in very low and fast, so the Sea Dart missiles did not acquire the targets until the range was too short for the missile syustem. HMS Brilliant fired its shorter ranged Sea Wolf missiles for the first time operationally, the first two missiles hit and destroyed the lead pair of Skyhawks. The third Skyhawk in the formation hit the debris of the first two in mid-air, causing it to crash as well. Captain John Coward of HMS Brilliant later stated that his crew were very happy with the Sea Wolf system. The next wave of Skyhawks were acquired by the Sea Dart system but a malfunction occurred and again it did not fire. This time the Sea Wolf system failed to fire as well, and all four of the attacking aircraft dropped their bombs. One bomb hit HMS Glasgow, but it passed straight through its engine room without hitting anything vital or exploding, so the damage was minimal. A third Argentine raid was detected, but by this time the Sea Harriers were back on station, and no attack developed. The Skyhawk that had bombed Glasgow made the mistake of flying too close to Goose Green airfield on the way back, and was shot down by the anti-aircraft guns there, its pilot being killed.
On 14 May a raid on Pebble Island by the SAS and SBS took place. The full details of this raid will appear on 14th May. The SBS were also landed by HMS Alacrity in Falkland Sound on the night of 16/17 May. They set up an observation post on the Sussex mountains overlooking part of the selected landing area for the main Task Force. Around this time HMS Glamorgan was engaged in patrolling the area between Stanley and Fitzroy. Each night the ship shelled Stanley then moved away. Part of their mission was to deceive the Argentinians that the main Task Force would be landing in this area. The only other action that took place before the main Task Force arrived occurred on the 16 May. A pair of Sea Harriers found two Argentine supply ships in Falkland Sound. The first Sea Harrier attacked one of the ships with its cannon, resulting in sufficient damage to cause the ship, the infamous Bahia Buen Suceso, to be beached. This vessel had had two roles in the fermentation of this conflict, firstly she had fired on a British Antarctic Survey vessel during the 1950s, and more recently had been the ship that had ferried the Argentine scrap metal workers to the island of South Georgia. The second ship was far enough out from the shore to be bombed. This ship was sunk.
The wait was almost over. The key ships of the invasion force were almost in range of the islands, and other reinforcements were arriving to begin the final stage of the conflict, the invasion and recapture of the Falkland Islands.