The first fleet and daylight air actions
The first fleet and daylight air actions - 1st May 1982
It was on 29 March 1982 that the first Royal Navy vessels were detached from European and other routine patrol and training duties and ordered to head south to reinforce HMS Endurance in the South Atlantic. This initially limited action was as a response to the deteriorating political situation, and to the uninvited presence of Argentinian workers on South Georgia, although this was still not seen in the UK as being the prelude to an invasion. The RFA Fort Austin and the submarine HMS Spartan sailed from Gibraltar, joined by a second submarine, HMS Splendid sailing from Faslane on 1 April. This was but the beginning, as also on 29 April, Flag Officer First Flotilla, Rear Admiral J F 'Sandy' Woodward, had received orders to prepare a suitable force of ships at Gibraltar by Commander-in-Chief Fleet Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse. The timing was fortuitous in one way as Exercise Springtrain was ending at Gibraltar, and many ships were immediately available that otherwise would not have been. Further orders were issued on 31 May to covertly prepare a Task Force for possible operations in the South Atlantic in reaction to the intelligence received regarding the movements and dispositions of the Argentinian fleet. On 2 April, as the Argentine forces were taking the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, a group of ten ships headed for Ascension Island from Gibraltar, Rear Admiral Woodard having sailed aboard HMS Antrim, transferring his flag to HMS Glamorgan on 4 April, and finally, as Commander of the Task Groups in the South Atlantic, to HMS Hermes on 15 April.
The larger force of ships based around the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes had been hurriedly assembled and equipped in the UK, and left from Portsmouth and other harbours on 5 April. One day later, further sailings from a variety of ports included the landing ships HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless, vital to any amphibious assault operation. Troop transports were at a premium, and in one of the fastest conversion feats of engineering ever recorded, SS Canberra, which on 31 March was approaching Gibraltar at the end of a luxury round the world cruise, sailed from Southampton on 9 April with 40 and 42 Commandos Royal Marines and the 3rd Parachute Regiment aboard, having been converted to a troopship and fitted with a helicopter landing deck in a little over a week. As she sailed, there were 26 men from Vospers engineering still putting the finishing touches to the helicopter pads. This was not the only example of civilian and military engineers working overtime to get the necessary ships into fighting order, much work had needed to be done on the HMS Hermes and Fearless to name but two, but the tasks were all completed in record time.
The ships gathered off Ascension Island, and frenetic activity ensued as stores, men and equipment were ferried between ships to ensure their correct placement on arrival in battle. A chain of resupply vessels was established to allow the rapid transport of supplies and replacements to the Task Force. At the same time the RAF was establishing its long range aircraft and tanker force on Ascension, and plans were put in place to allow the Hercules transports to air drop vital last-minute equipment along with mail and other cargo to the ships en-route. After only 28 days from the first sailings, on 30 April, over 70 vessels were at sea, and the lead elements of the Task Force carrier group were rapidly approaching the 200 mile Total Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands.
The border of the Total Exclusion Zone was not merely the physical edge of an area, it was also a psychological line as beyond this, armed conflict was now inevitable. At 2130 hrs local time on 30th April the first ships of the British Task Force crossed this line, the flagship HMS Hermes arrived 1 hour later in company with their guard destroyers and frigates and the other aircraft carrier, HMS Invincible. In all, twelve British warships were steaming close to the Islands as the Vulcan B2, XM607, bombed Stanley airfield on Operation Black Buck 1.
First air strikes
At 07:48 hrs, in order to take best possible advantage of the Argentine confusion at the Vulcan's attack, 12 Sea Harriers or 800 Squadron were launched from HMS Hermes to attack the airfields at Stanley and Goose Green with 1,000 lb bombs and BL755 cluster bombs. HMS Invincible launched a further six Sea Harriers to fly Combat Air Patrol and to deal with any Argentine air intervention. The 12 aircraft from HMS Hermes were split into two groups, nine heading for Stanley, the remaining three to Goose Green. The nine Harriers reached Stanley in the half-light of dawn. The first two pairs came in low over the sea, just before they reached the coast they pulled up to release three 1,000 lb bombs onto anti-aircraft positions around the airfield. The first nine bombs were set to explode in the air to create blast and shrapnel damage, the next two were fused to explode on impact and the last had a one-hour delay fitted to deny Argentinian aircraft use of the airfield until it exploded or could be defused. While the attentions of the gun positions were being drawn by the attacking aircraft, the other 5 Harriers attacked the airfield. Four aircraft had cluster bombs and aimed for the aircraft parked on the airfield, as well as stores and supplies stacked around the aircraft parking areas. The last aircraft was carrying parachute-retarded high explosive bombs and aimed for the runway. The whole attack took ninety seconds from beginning to end, and split the defences between the three waves. No missiles were believed to have been launched at the Sea Harriers, but the anti-aircraft gun fire was considerable, consisting of all calibres up to 45mm. Despite the ground fire being intense, one Sea Harrier pilot reported that it looked like a child's sparkler on Guy Fawkes night and another commented that "They were hosing it around all over the place", there was only one hit, a 20mm shell passed through the upper fin of an aircraft flown by Flt Lt David Morgan, a detached RAF pilot. This damage was quickly patched with a bolted aluminum plate and the aircraft returned to service.
One of the most valuable characteristics of the Harrier and Sea Harrier in the following days of the conflict was their relative mechanical simplicity for a high performance combat aircraft. Damaged aircraft were patched, often with the ubiquitous 'speed' or 'hundred knot' tape and quickly made available for tasks. Even more serious damage was quickly repaired by the engineering teams aboard the two carriers, resulting in a very high sortie and availability rate for the type. The total Royal Navy air engineering force consisted of just 140 men, aided by 20 RAF NCOs, who together kept a minimum of 20 aircraft serviceable round the clock throughout the campaign. The engineers were a force multiplier in their own right, allowing the Task Force commanders to make maximum use of their limited numbers of aircraft.
As the first attack was going in, the second wave of three Sea Harriers hit Goose Green taking the Argentinian forces there totally by surprise. Two aircraft dropped cluster bombs and the third attacked with 1,000 lb bombs, as with the attack on Stanley, all weapon deliveries were made visually and at very low level. Three Pucara ground attack aircraft were definitely destroyed, one as it was preparing for take off, its pilot and seven other men were killed by the strike. The Sea Harriers all recovered successfully to the carriers, making vertical landings on any suitable deck space 60 ft across, another advantage of the remarkable aircraft.
Sea strikes on Stanley
Within ten minutes of the first bombs falling on Stanley airfield, five ships broke off from the carrier group and headed towards Stanley. This force further split into two parts, the first consisting of the frigates HMS Brilliant and HMS Yarmouth supported by 3 Sea King helicopters. This force positioned some 20 miles off the coast to the north of Stanley, and conducted anti-submarine operations in concert with the helicopters, hunting for the Argentine submarine San Luis. The submarine threat to the British fleet was taken very seriously, as the Argentine submarine force was of unknown quality not to mention location. During these operations one Sea King HAS Mk5 from 826 Squadron stayed airborne for 10 hours and 20 minutes, refuelling in the air twice from the two frigates. A submarine contact was made and prosecuted, resulting in a depth charge attack. Shortly after this attack, a suspected oil slick was seen but no definite kill was confirmed.
The other three ships, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan in company with the frigates HMS Alacrity and Arrow, approached the coast of East Falkland just to the east and south of Stanley. Using their main gun armament they began a bombardment of the airfield and its surrounding area. All three ships hit the aircraft parking area first, before switching to engage individual targets. These included the road from the town of Stanley to the airfield as well as suspected radar and gun positions north and south of the town.
While the bombardment was going on there was the first reaction from the Argentine air defences resulting in few skirmishes between British and Argentine aircraft, but nothing was reported as hit on either side. Firstly, Flt Lt Paul Barton and Lt Commander John Eyton-Jones flying Sea Harriers of 801 Squadron were vectored onto three widely spaced pairs of aircraft approaching from the west at high level by HMS Invincible. Two more Sea Harriers were closing on the first pair but Barton and Eyton-Jones were initially alone in a potential 2 v 6 combat. The Sea Harriers were at 15,000 ft (4,570 m) and the lead pair of Mirage IIIEAs were at 34,450 ft (10,500 m), each remaining in the best performance envelope for their type. A purely defensive duel evolved, each side looking to draw the other into an area where they would have the advantage, until the Argentine fighters were forced to withdraw due to fuel constraints. The Sea Harriers returned to the carrier to refuel and await another opportunity. Several more probing encouters occured over the next few hours as the Argentine fighters sought a weakness in the British defences and searched for the ships of the Task Force.
Early in the afternoon, two more Sea Harriers of 801 Squadron, flown by Lt Commander 'Sharkey' Ward and Lt Mike Watson were vectored onto three T-34C-1 Mentor light attack aircraft which were going to strafe the three ships bombarding the Argentine positions around Stanley. The Mentor was a turbo-prop powered trainer in essence, with a limited weapons carrige for ground attack duties. These were flying at low level and were intercepted by the rapidly descending Sea Harriers about 25 miles north of Stanley, who opened fire with their cannons at long range. The Mentors pulled up into cloud, and the Sea Harriers followed, nearly colliding with one of the Argentine aircraft as they did so. The Mentors immediately headed into the defence zone around Stanley airfield and landed, so the Sea Harriers returned to their patrol line, only to be vectored soon afterwards onto another flight of Mirage IIIEAs approaching from the west. Another defensive duel ensued, the Argentine fighters firing their missiles while still out of range in the vague hope of a hit. More was to come.
The first air engagements
The attacks of the morning gave the Argentinians the impression that an amphibious assault was imminent, and they reacted accordingly, aiming to attack the British Task Force with a large scale air attack. Late in the afternoon a force of around 40 aircraft were dispatched from Argentina to find and destroy the carriers and presumed assault ships. The force consisted of Canberra B Mk 62s of Grupo 2 de Bombardeo, A-4B and C Skyhawk fighter-bombers of Grupo 4 and 5 de Caza. Air cover for the attack force was provided by Mirage IIIEA and IAI Dagger fighters of Grupo 8 de Caza and Grupo 6 de Caza respectively.
The first wave of these aircraft, led by the Mirage IIIEAs were over the Falkland Islands at 1645 hrs. At first, two Mirages were detected by HMS Glamorgan, who directed two of 801's Sea Harriers from the standing Combat Air Patrol on to them over the north of East Falkland. Flown by Flt Lt Paul Barton and Lt Steve Thomas, the engagement initially began in the defensive style of the earlier combats with the Sea Harriers flying at around 11,000 ft (3,355 m) and the Mirages far above them. The two Mirages were from Grupo 8 de Caza and were flown by Captain Garcia Cuerva and Lieutenant Carlos Perona, who descended and moved in on the British aircraft in a far more agressive style than had been previously encountered by the Sea Harriers, flying in close formation. The Argentine tactics were poor, Thomas, who was closer, got the first shot in with his cannons as his Sidewinder missiles would not lock on to the enemy aircraft. The Argentines fired two missiles in reply, both of which were no threat to the Sea Harriers. Barton soon found he had the advantage as he rolled over the top of the approaching Mirages and pulled into a tight turn behind them. Barton fired an AIM-9 Sidewinder which hit Perona's Mirage. He ejected just as the fighter exploded, and was recovered safely by Argentine forces on the ground. Thomas now found himself in a descending turn above Cuerva's Mirage, heard the growl tone of his Sidewinder as it locked onto the heat of Cuerva's exhaust, and fired. The missile reached the Mirage just as it disappeared into cloud at about 4,000 ft. On their return to the carriers Barton was credited with a confirmed kill, and Thomas with a probable. After the conflict it was discovered that the warhead had exploded close to Cuerva's tail and damaged it severly. Losing fuel from ruptured tanks, Cuerva headed for Stanley airfield, dropping his external tanks as he approached. Unfortunately, the understandably twitchy Argentine gunners took these to be bombs and opened fire, destroying the crippled Mirage and killing poor Cuerva.
A few minutes after this engagement the main force arrived which included at least two formations of Daggers and one of Canberras. A group of three Daggers found and bombed HMS Glamorgan, Alacrity and Arrow. The aircraft attacked along the line of ships, two bombs fell either side of HMS Glamorgan and two just astern HMS Alacrity. HMS Arrow was hit by cannon fire and one sailor was injured. After this attack the ships withdrew away from the coast. Lt Martin Hale and Flt Lt Tony Penfold on Combat Air Patrol in two Sea Harriers of 800 Squadron were attacked by the second group of IAI Dagger fighters from Grupo 6 de Caza. Hale was quickly forced to manoeuver and dive steeply away from a missile fired by one of the Daggers, as he climbed to rejoin the fight, he saw Penfold fire a Sidewinder which detonated close to another Dagger, the severely damaged aircraft breaking up and diving into the sea. The remaining Daggers withdrew.
A force of six Canberras then approached the islands, initially at high level but descended to get below the British radar. They did this too late and were detected by HMS Glamorgan who vectored Lt Commander Mike Broadwater and Lt Al Curtiss of 801 Squadron onto the contact. The Canberra's course was projected and it was found they were heading directly toward the two aircraft carriers. The Sea Harriers intercepted the six Canberras 150 miles out. Curtiss fired a Sidewinder at one, destroying it, the others turned back but the Harriers were low on fuel so could not follow. Broadwater fired both his Sidewinders at extreme range, which failed to hit any of the surviving Canberras. The Argentine's first major air operation had failed for the loss of a Mirage, a Dagger and a Canberra shot down by the Sea Harriers and one Mirage shot down by their own side. Not one of the Harriers had even been damaged. After night-fall HMS Glamorgan, Alacrity and Arrow moved back in toward the coast and carried on their bombardment of the airfield to show that the Task Force had not been deterred by the days action.
One major effect of these first air attacks against the Falklands was that Grupo 8 de Caza with its Mirage IIIEA fighters was held on the Argentine mainland as a quick reaction force to deal with any Vulcan strikes aimed at the airfields there. The success of the 'Black Buck' mission meant that the Mirages withdrew from the battle from this point, except for the very occasional sortie. After their failure to deal with the Sea Harriers, the Daggers of Grupo 6 de Caza were employed only as fighter-bombers in future operations. The first air strikes had effectively removed the threat of Argentine missile armed fighters operating over the Falklands for the rest of the conflict.