- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- History - post WWII
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1994 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Battle for Falkland Islands – 1982
The Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands (las Islas Malvinas) on 2 April 1982 took place at a time when the British Royal Navy was under threat of cuts imposed by the new Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott. Despite warnings from the Royal Navy that the ice patrol ship Endurance was a cost-effective reminder to Argentina not to press her claim to the islands with excessive force, she was listed for early scrapping. At the same time the ruling military junta in Argentina was under internal pressure from popular unrest at economic problems, and when they saw what appeared to be the first sign that Britain was at last prepared to withdraw her claim to the islands, they decided that the time had come to use force to accelerate the process and at the same time divert public attention to an external issue.
Both sides paid dearly for their miscalculations. The British government, outraged at what they saw as a violation of international law, immediately dispatched a powerful task force to repossess the islands, while a divided group of senior Argentine military officers tried to fend off or escape the consequences of their actions by haphazard diplomatic efforts. One by one the diplomatic initiatives collapsed, as they came up against two hard facts: the British regarded the islands as theirs legally, and the Argentine military junta’s precarious prestige could not survive a climb-down.
We now know that the junta finally accepted that hostilities were inescapable when on 1 May a single RAF Vulcan bomber flew from Ascension Island to bomb the runway at Port Stanley. Believing that the British intended to bomb Buenos Aires, the Argentine high command gave permission for two naval Super Etendard aircraft to launch a missile strike against the British next day, in the hope that a severe loss would force the British task force to withdraw. A small British detachment had already recaptured South Georgia, 800 miles beyond the Falklands, but the facilities there could not support a fleet, and on the advice of Admiral Anaya the junta believed that the British would soon be forced back to Ascension.
The Super Etendard sortie was launched but was abandoned when the two aircraft failed to rendezvous with their tanker, but in the meantime the nuclear hunter-killer submarine HMS Conqueror had found the old cruiser General Belgrano steaming just outside the Total Exclusion Zone which the British had proclaimed around the islands. With-some units of the task force already on the south-western side of the islands, and two Exocet-aI’med destroyers escorting the cruiser, Admiral John Woodward and his superiors at Fleet HQ, Northwood, decided that the Belgrano task group was a threat and, after consultation with the British government, Conqueror was given permission to sink her. Some 350 of the Argentinian crew went down with the ship or succumbed to exposure before they could be rescued.
Two days later the Super Etendards made another sortie and this time one of their AM39 Exocet missiles hit the air defense destroyer Sheffield. A fierce fire took hold and about five hours later the fire parties abandoned the ship. In fact the gutted hulk stayed afloat for another six days but when the weather worsened she was scuttled.
Contrary to Argentine predictions the British did not withdraw, and during the next 17 days Sea Harrier strike aircraft and individual ships probed the defenses, bombarding Port Stanley’s airfield, sinking any Argentine ships still in the Exclusion Zone and ‘inserting’ SAS and SBS forces ashore. On the night of 15 May a raid on Pebble Island destroyed aircraft and fuel dumps, and incidentally confused the defenders about the point of assault. At dawn on 21 May the main land forces under Major General Jeremy Moore RM landed at San Carlos on the western side of East Falkland. They had achieved the ideal amphibious landing, taking the defenders by surprise and not losing a man.
After a week to consolidate the troops broke out of the bridgehead and captured Goose Green, but the speed of advance was hampered by lack of heavy-lift helicopters. Air attacks by Argentine Air Force Mirage fighter-bombers and Navy Skyhawks had sunk two frigates and damaged a number of ships in San Carlos Water, culminating in a massive series of raids on 25 May. Once again the Super Etendards were in action and their Exocets crippled the big transport SS Atlantic Conveyor. In the fire which engulfed her three Chinook and 12 Wessex helicopters were destroyed, as well as a vast quantity of military stores.