In April 1982, after a failure of American and United Nations’ shuttle diplomacy with Argentina, Great Britain invoked the 1386 Treaty of Windsor with Portugal (the longest lasting mutual defense treaty in existence) for use of airbases in the Azores for a naval task force to assemble at Ascension Island. The dispersed ships of the task force, centered on the two small Harrier jump jet aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes, and the landing ships carrying the reinforced 3 Commando Brigade, were enroute to recapture the Falkland Islands after an Argentine invasion in early April 1982. They arrived at San Carlos Water, a fjord off of the Falklands Sound, the strait splitting the two major Falkland Islands, on 21 May 1982.
By the late Cold War, the Royal Navy was a far cry from the overwhelming force that safeguarded the British Empire for three centuries. With extensive defense expenditure cuts, it devolved into a niche capability anti-submarine and anti-missile force to prevent the penetration of the Greenland-Iceland-Faeroes Gap in the North Atlantic. There the primary threats were Soviet submarines, and missiles launched from long range Soviet bombers, and their capabilities reflected that. They expected to be able to spot incoming air threats on radar at long range and destroy them before they could fire. The Royal Navy was not prepared for the low tech/close in onslaught brought on by the Argentine air force.
After the cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine, the Argentine Navy withdrew to its ports for the remainder of the conflict. The task of preventing the Royal Navy from landing troops on the Falkland Islands, or failing that, forcing the Royal Navy to withdraw and isolate the landings, fell to the Argentine Air Force. The meagre Argentine response of 81 mm mortars and 105 mm recoilless rifle fire to the initial landings on the morning of 21 May gave way to four days of constant, intense, and effective air attacks by 90 aircraft based on mainland Argentina and ten more operating from grass strips on the islands. San Carlos Water was chosen for the initial landings specifically because the West Falkland Island masked the task force from aircraft armed with the Exocet anti-ship missile, one of which sank the patrolling HMS Sheffield on 10 May (the missile didn’t even explode, but its unexpended fuel caused fires which could not be contained). However, the reverse was also true: the island masked the incoming aircraft from British radar and anti aircraft missiles. Furthermore, with the decommissioning of their last full sized carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, just three years before, the British lacked any ability for combat air patrol or airborne early warning. The V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) Harriers of the smaller carriers would prove to be adept and agile air superiority fighters against the Argentinians when armed with upgraded Sidewinder missiles, but they lacked the range and stamina to continuously remain on station. The British position in San Carlos Water protected the fleet from the Argentine’s niche capability, the Exocet missile, but played directly into the hands of their adversary’s main ship killing weapon, one that would not be out of place in the Second World War forty years before – the 1000 lb iron bomb.
From 21-25 May 1982, the Battle of San Carlos more closely resembled the sea battles off Crete or Okinawa against the Germans and Japanese respectively than anything thought of by NATO planners against the Soviets. The Argentinian pilots approached under cover of the West Falkland Island, and at the last moment popped over the hills, release their dumb i.e. unguided, bombs at the ships sitting in the Water, and climbed desperately away to avoid being destroyed by the shrapnel from their own attacks. The British anti-aircraft missiles were completely useless in San Carlos Water, and the British were forced expose their primary anti-aircraft defense ships outside as decoys to take the brunt of the attacks. This dispersed the Argentine attacks, but did little for ships still in the Water with Argentine planes descending upon them. Only ancient Bofors and Oerlikion anti aircraft guns taken out of storage by forward thinking junior officers and hastily bolted on to the ships provided any defense when the Harriers were otherwise occupied. There are numerous accounts of landing ships whose only air defense were crewmen or soldiers firing small arms at the low flying Argentine planes while they waited to unload. San Carlos Water quickly became known as “Bomb Alley”.
On 21 May, the frigate HMS Ardent was struck by several bombs whose fires sank the ship that night; many of the crew only survived because another ship, the HMS Yarmouth, courageously pulled alongside to allow the survivors to jump on board. The HMS Antelope was the next victim to the iron bombs, though in her case one failed to explode, at least until an EOD team accidentally detonated it. The resulting fire cooked off the magazine which broke the back of the ship. On the 25th, the HMS Coventry succumbed to a bomb “skipped” across the water like a rock. The same day, the MV Atlantic Conveyer, a converted container ship carrying the invasion force’s complement of Chinook helicopters and other necessary logistical material sank after being struck by an Exocet missile fired at point blank range. This loss proved devastating to the invasion force, and another such, or the sinking of one of the over worked Harrier carriers, would have doomed the invasion. Virtually all of the ships at the Battle of San Carlos took damage, that more weren’t sunk was due almost as much to faulty Argentine fuses as anything the British did. 13 bombs struck British ships without exploding. At an interview just after the battle, a high ranking retired RAF commentator said, “Six better fuses and we would have lost”.
By the 25th, the operations tempo proved too much for the Air Force. Moreover, the Argentinians lost 22 planes and the pilots were beginning to openly complain that they were receiving no assistance from the other services. The air attacks diminished considerably once it was obvious the British troops were firmly lodged on East Falkland Island.
However, the Commandos and the attached Paras would have a long way to walk before they reached their objective, the capital at Port Stanley.