The Landings Begin
On the 21st of May, after weeks of softening up and reconnaissance operations, the British began landing the first of two infantry brigades. These landings took place on the beaches at San Carlos Water. A quick glance at the map shows that San Carlos Water is across the island from the main Argentinian defensive positions, and is also in sheltered waters.
Landing so far away from the main Argentinian defensive positions allowed the British forces to land without having to endure the sort of slaughter that comes to mind in an amphibious operation, such as at Normandy or Iwo Jima. Units were able to land in coherent order, and the flow of their logistical supplies was able to follow immediately upon their heels. The sheltered waters also made landing craft control and operations a great deal easier. Finally, the grounds surrounding San Carlos Water would frustrate any attempt to attack with Exocet missiles. This use of the inherent mobility of the sea to conduct amphibious landings at a place most advantageous to the attacker is one of the hallmarks of modern doctrine for our own US Marines, and other sea borne forces.
But the selection of the landing site wasn’t without its drawbacks. While the Argentinian ground forces were in no position to offer any serious resistance, they were able to tell just where a sizeable portion of the British fleet was. In addition to amphibious shipping, several frigates were on hand to serve as escorts, deliver gunfire support, and provide radar and missile anti-aircraft coverage for the landings. At last, the Argentinians could launch sizeable airstrikes with a good idea of where the British were to be found. And due to the surrounding land masses, the British radar would be unable to pick up inbound strikes until almost literally the last second.
Incredibly, when the Argentinians came in, they focused their strikes on the warships, not the amphibious shipping. Had they studied the Japanese Kamikaze campaign in the Philippines and Okinawa, they would have realized that the priority should have gone to the ‘gators, and left the tin cans for later. Had they struck any of the amphibious ships, they could have seriously disrupted the landings.
They may have had the wrong priority, but when the Argentinian pilots began attacking that day, they came in with a stunning ferocity:
Chapter 12:”The British were awed by the courage of the Argentine pilots, flying suicidally low to attack, then vanishing amid flashes of pursuing Sea Cat, Blowpipe, Rapier, racing across the sky behind them. Alone among the enemy’s three services, the air force seemed highly motivated and utterly committed to the battle. ‘We should have been able to work out that any nation which produces first-class Formula One racing drivers is also likely to turn out some pretty good pilots.’” – Hastings, Max: The Battle for the Falklands (1983) Michael Joseph Ltd
Wave after wave of Dagger and Skyhawk fighter bombers came after the task force in Falkland Sound. Damage to the British fleet was heavy. Five different British frigates suffered damage, and one of them, the Type 21 frigate HMS Ardent later sank.
By coming in at insanely low level, the Argentinians avoided the worst of British gun and missile anti-aircraft fire. But they also unintentionally robbed themselves of success. Bombs dropped from jets need to fall a certain period of time before they arm. The Argentinians were attacking from such low altitude that quite a few bombs hit, but few exploded. Still, 500 or 1000 pounds of steel moving at 4o0 miles an hour causes a fair amount of damage just by the transfer of kinetic energy.
While the Argentinians could approach the British task force undetected, they were still attacking into the face of a modern gun and missile armed fleet. Five Dagger fighters, and four Skyhawk bombers were shot down. In addition, four light aircraft based ashore fell to British weapons.
Most air forces would have been stunned by such heavy losses. The Argentinians continued to attack.
On the 23rd of May, HMS Antelope, another Type 21 frigate, was struck by two bombs, neither of which exploded. She was badly damaged. That evening, as an EOD team attempted to defuse the bomb, it exploded. Antelope caught fire, and sank the next day.
Finally, on the 24th, the Argentinians realized the need to focus on the amphibious ships instead of the escorts. Landing ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary came under heavy attack by Argentinian jets. RFA Sir Galahad, Sir Lancelot and Sir Bedivere were all damaged by Argentinian bombs, none of which exploded. RFA Sir Bedivere was able to continue operations, but the other two were out of action for some time.
The next day, the Argentinian Independence Day, the Argentinians mounted a major effort. HMS Broadsword, a Type 22 Frigate, was damaged by a bomb that bounced off the surface of the water, went through her stern, and exited out her side.
Worse still, HMS Coventry, a Type 42 Destroyer, came under attack by Skyhawks. Two, possibly three 1000 pound bombs exploded, and Coventry went down in about half an hour, with 19 dead, and about 30 wounded.
It wasn’t just the ships in San Carlos water that came under attack. The Argentinians again mounted a Super Etendard/Exocet attack on the carriers, now operating north of the Falklands. Two Exocets were launched at HMS Invincible. One missile failed to guide, possibly after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. The other Exocet locked onto Invincible. Before it could impact, it lost lock, probably due to chaff fired from Invincible. Having lost its target, it acquired a lock on the cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor. Atlantic Conveyor, hastily modified to support RAF Harriers and helicopters and lacking the firefighting and damage control features of a warship , was mortally damaged. Worse still, several helicopters aboard, including a Chinook, were lost in fires. The loss of the heavy lift Chinook would be a blow to the logistical operations ashore.
From a strictly Army point of view, there was no great urgency to moving ahead with attacking the Argentinian positions ashore. They weren’t going anywhere, and they weren’t going to be reinforced in any substantial way. Better to move deliberately than rush headlong and take unneeded casualties.
But this would ignore a lesson learned at Makin Island, the Marianas and in the Philippines. The landing force must seize its objectives as fast as possible. To delay means that the covering naval forces remain tied down supporting them, sacrificing their mobility, and exposing them to much greater risk of attack.
Finally, I find it almost astonishing that the Argentinians failed to mine the waters of Falkland Sound. It was an obvious potential landing area, and even a very crude sea-mine field would have frustrated any British attempt to land there. The British would have found someplace to land, to be sure. But any defending commander with a lick of sense will do all that he can to force his opponent to attack him at a place of his own choosing.
Time for some video. The Falklands War was covered in great detail by the British press, and considerable footage was shot of the action.