In spite of the heavy losses inflicted by Argentinian airpower on the 25th of May, the British were able to land the main body of two brigades at San Carlos Water, and by the 26th, these forces began their offensive to eject the Argentinians from the Falklands. During this ground campaign, the Navy’s role would be to ensure the steady flow of supplies ashore, and to provide Close Air Support as needed from the carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible.
Bad weather and the heavy losses suffered opposing the landings meant the Argentine Air Force mounted relatively few sorties and achieved even less. On the 30th, the Argentinians fired their last Exocet at HMS Invincible. It was shot down. A follow up attack by Skyhawks did no damage. While the Argentinians still insist they struck Invincible, most likely the Skyhawks bombed the burnt out hulk of SS Atlantic Conveyor.
While the Argentinian Air Force could not realistically hope to turn the tide of war, they remained an aggressive force, and were quick to pounce on any British errors.
On June 8th, a secondary landing was made near the main Argentine positions at Port Stanley as an attempt to outflank the main defenses. Landings were made near Fitzroy. Due to a disagreement between the naval commanders and the landing force commander as to where the landings should actually take place, the landings took longer than anticipated. The Argentinians quickly capitalized on this.
Landing ships RFA Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were conducting the landing, escorted by HMS Plymouth. The frigate HMS Plymouth was first to suffer. Daggers from the FAA strafed and bombed her. She was struck by multiple bombs, but they failed to explode. Nevertheless, the damage from the kinetic energy was enough to take her out of the fight. Skyhawks in the same raid bombed both landing ships. Both ships were badly damaged and caught fire, with Sir Galahad losing 48 men, mostly from the landing party of the Welsh Guards. Sir Tristam lost 2 men. Sir Galahad was a total constructive loss, and would later be scuttled. Sir Tristam was out of the fight, but well after the conclusion of hostilities, she was returned to Britain and rebuilt, serving until 2005. Later that afternoon, a large Landing Craft Utility, LCU F4 was caught in the open and sunk with the loss of six British lives.
This battle on June 8 shows again the value of using the sea to maneuver ground forces. It was able to place a significant force in a position to unhinge Argentinian defenses, and reduce the need for a British frontal assault on prepared defenses. But it also highlighted the vulnerability of amphibious shipping in the littorals, and emphasized the need for speed of execution in amphibious operations. The Welsh Guards commander’s desire to save a 6 hour road march cost him 40 troops and the Navy two valuable ships. It also showed that detailed planning for amphibious operations was needed, and that landings could not be extemporized without great risk.
One final action foreshadowed challenges that navies operating inshore would face. Lacking air launched Exocets, and with its fleet penned up in its home ports, the Argentinians quickly devised a method of using ship launched Exocets from jury-rigged shore based launchers, and deployed them to the Falklands. On June 12, one of these shore based Exocets damaged HMS Glamorgan, The possible use of shore based anti-ship missiles was of great concern to the US Navy during the Tanker War of 1987-88, and during Desert Storm. And in the 2006 Lebanon War, an Israeli corvette would be badly damaged by a Chinese built anti-ship missile launched from ashore by Hezbollah. The proliferation of shore based anti-ship missiles will only get worse. Navies will need to learn to counter this threat, or cede the littorals to the enemy.
By 14th of June, the British had forced the capitulation of Argentinian forces in the islands. The Union Jack once again flew over the small isolated possession. Patriotism in Britain blossomed. The war was a disaster for the Galtieri lead junta in Argentina, which soon collapsed. And naval strategists, tacticians, and enthusiasts the world over began to pore over the details of the action, looking for lessons learned, and clues as to how the next war at sea would be fought.
We’ll examine a few of these lessons in our next, final installment.