The air units on the mainland had been standing by for action for many days, conserving their strength since the false start on 1 May and absorbing the lessons learnt on that day. Some changes in policy had been made, and the full strength of the units available would not be committed in this new phase. The Canberras of the 2nd Bomber Group were now considered to be too vulnerable in daylight operations and were kept back for night work. The 8th Fighter Group, which only had eight Mirages left after the combats with Sea Harriers on 1 May, would also be kept back to defend the mainland air bases; their all-weather capability would enable them to intercept British air raids if these were mounted against mainland targets.
These changes left the Argentine Air Force with an estimated 62 available strike aircraft — 39 Skyhawks of the 4th and 5th Fighter Groups and 23 Daggers of the 6th Fighter Group. A small reinforcement of eight Skyhawks had arrived at Rio Grande in the form of the 3rd Naval Fighter and Attack Squadron, which had been disembarked from the aircraft-carrier Veinticinco de Mayo now that the Argentine fleet was confined to coastal waters. The pilots of this unit were well trained in ship-attack tactics. The Super Étendard unit at Rio Grande still had three Exocets remaining but this unit was only suitable for open sea work and it would not be used in the coming offensive against the landing area. The Argentine pilots destined for that battle would have to operate under most unfavourable conditions. They would have to carry out low-level bomb and cannon attacks, which would have to be pressed right home to be effective. They would have to operate over the sea, at maximum range from their own bases, without fighter escort and having to run the gauntlet of the Sea Harriers, which had already proved their effectiveness in combat, as well as the mass of missiles and gunfire put up by the British ships and ground forces. It would be a daunting task.
The attacks carried out by those Argentine pilots during the San Carlos landing period have been subjected to intense analysis – though not always with conclusive results — and have been described in detail several times. I do not intend to republish yet another step-by-step account but will confine my contribution to giving an overall view and providing personal accounts from some of the Argentine pilots who survived. In doing this, I would like to acknowledge the hard work done by specialist aviation writers on whose work I have drawn.
The main air attacks were spread over a period lasting nearly five hours, from about 10.30 a.m. until nearly 3.30 p.m. There were three distinct waves, each containing between fourteen and seventeen aircraft. The first wave consisted of eight Daggers from the 6th Fighter Group flying from San Julián and Rio Grande and six Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group from Rio Gallegos. A personal account from this phase is available from First Lieutenant Filippini, who was leading a combined Skyhawk flight of five aircraft after his fellow flight leader had to turn back with technical trouble. Filippini describes his attack on the frigate Argonaut in the northern entrance to Falkland Sound, just under Fanning Head:
When the Falkland Sound was in sight, one of my wingmen shouted over the radio: ‘To the right!’ It sounded like an order to me, so I banked and caught sight of a frigate. The ship detected us at the same time and headed rapidly towards a high cliff, looking for shelter, hoping to force us to climb to avoid crashing into the headland. Then we began to attract their anti-aircraft fire, which we could distinguish as a curtain of small red light beams formed by their tracer ammunition. The quiet island soon became hell. As we got nearer we could see this fire in the air in front of us and then passing over our cockpits, so we were forced to descend even lower to get into their blind cannon area, where we aimed to drop our bombs a little before reaching the target.
We concentrated on aiming. The ship, protected by the cliff 200 metres high, was in my sight, so I dropped one of the bombs which would cause its destruction. I felt like destroying the enemy, thinking of my comrades shot down by them on 12 May. I pulled my control stick backwards in a climbing turn, trying to pull over the headland. I felt a violent blow under my plane; an auxiliary fuel tank hanging under one of the wings had crashed against the mast of the frigate. Then I dived to escape by staying as close to the ground as possible and eventually I took refuge behind some hills. We reached the sea and then headed to our base at low altitude. As we flew past the northern mouth of the Sound, we could see the frigate we had attacked. A dense column of black smoke was coming out of its side; our bombs had hit it, and we saw the colour of the ship’s structure starting to change from light grey to reddish brown.
Very excited at this victory over our enemies, we broke radio silence with joyful shouts. Once the euphoria was over, I checked my wingmen apprehensively to make sure they were all there and safe. That was the happiest moment after the attack; thank God, the five planes which had entered the target area were all present.
Two bombs had hit Argonaut, but neither exploded because the Skyhawks were flying too low and this did not give the bomb fuses time to arm themselves after leaving the aircraft. But one of the bombs set off an explosion in the Sea Cat magazine, and it was the smoke from this which Filippini saw as he passed the entrance to Falkland Sound after the attack. Two seamen were killed in the ship.
The Daggers operating at this time caused cannon-fire damage to various ships and also put a bomb into the destroyer Antrim; but this bomb did not explode, and one Dagger was shot down, probably by a Sea Wolf fired by HMS Broadsword. Its pilot was killed.
The next wave of attacks came in two and a half hours later. Fourteen Skyhawks from three units were dispatched, but the six naval Skyhawks flying from Rio Grande met difficult weather conditions, had their orders altered in mid-flight and were forced to turn back before reaching the islands. One of the other formations also suffered two early returns, leaving just four aircraft of the 4th Fighter Group and two of the 5th Fighter Group to carry on. The attacks were not successful. Sea Harriers caught the 4th Fighter Group flight, shooting down two Skyhawks and damaging a third and preventing any of these aircraft from reaching the landing area. The two shot-down pilots were both killed. The pair of Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group, led by Captain Pablo Carballo, flew up Falkland Sound from the south-west and observed what they believed to be one of the British landing ships. Carballo’s wingman dropped his bombs on the ship, but Carballo held his back at the last moment because he thought something was wrong. He was correct; this was the abandoned Argentine ship Rio Carcaraña. Carballo then pressed on alone towards the landing area and finally encountered the Ardent, which was still in its solitary bombardment position north of Goose Green. Carballo describes his attack:
The effect produced by the compression of the air between my plane and the sea caused a constant beating on the bottom of the plane when flying so low, almost skimming the waves. It was much the same as the vibration one feels when driving a car over a cattle grid or a level crossing. In those endless two or three minutes leading up to the attack, I heard something on the radio that froze my blood. It sounded like the breathing of a person in agony, and I wondered how this mournful breathing could have entered my VHF until I suddenly realized that it was my own breathing. I looked at my chest, expecting to see it heaving up and down, but it looked quite normal.
Soon I entered a quiet area where I was no longer being fired at and I concentrated on the gunsight. When I saw the huge steel structure of the ship filling the sight, I pressed the trigger and felt the plane climb a few metres when the bomb released. I was kind of stupefied and dizzy, and this could have cost me my life. Suddenly, right in front of me, I saw the two pillars of the pointed masts against which I was about to crash. Instinctively hitting my control stick, I banked the plane and dived in between them, seeing one of them flash past my cockpit. Then I recovered my balance and started a slight turn left, mentally counting the seconds for the bomb to explode. When time was up and nothing happened, just as I was saying ‘I have failed’, I saw a dark cloud of smoke rising up to the height of the masts of the ship and pieces falling into the sea. I can’t really say for sure whether the smoke was caused by an explosion or by the launching of a missile, but I believe that kind of frigate doesn’t carry missiles.
I began to shout happily and levelled off. I had a very unpleasant surprise when I met another frigate, but it didn’t open fire. Only God knows why.
Then I made for the ‘sun route’ as we called it in our squadron, leaving the islands behind, heading west, with the tremendous satisfaction of being able to say we had fulfilled our duty and were still alive. I felt really well; I had fought against a fearful enemy with my veteran plane under the protection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. On landing, I was surprised to meet my supreme chief, Brigadier-General Lami Dozo, Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, who had come to the south to see how we were doing. I remember he told me that we had to grit our teeth, as there was still a long way to go. How right he was!
Pablo Carballo had made a brave, solo attack but he was not successful. The evidence from Ardent is quite clear that his bomb fell into the sea alongside the ship. The second round of attacks thus ended with only this one Skyhawk reaching the British ships out of fourteen aircraft dispatched and at a cost of two Argentine aircraft lost.
The final burst of action, starting one and a half hours later, was the most effective of the day. Seventeen aircraft burst through to the landing area between 2.30 and 3.15 p.m. and in the savage action which followed, both sides suffered severely. Eleven Daggers and six naval Skyhawks had taken off, and all but one reached the landing area, flying in small tactical groups of three or two aircraft. Captain Robles was leading one of the Dagger pairs. Passing over West Falkland, he was unaware that his wingman was shot down by a Sea Harrier; he thought that the pilot — First Lieutenant Luna – had flown into a hill. Robles now joined another pair of Daggers and soon sighted the still solitary Ardent:
We carried on, swallowing our sadness at ‘Negro’ Luna’s accident. On the other side of Falkland Sound, over Grantham Sound, we saw a frigate close to the coast. As we started the attack we thought: ‘This will be for Luna.’ They started firing at us as we skimmed over the water. Captain Mir González bravely flew straight towards the masts of the ship, a path forming in front of his plane from his cannon shells. His bomb struck ten metres short, and up flew a mass of water which practically covered the ship; the bomb then bounced off the water and I believe it entered the hull.
Then Lieutenant Bernhardt dropped his bomb, which hit the upper and front part of the ship. When I was within range I dropped my bomb and, while passing over the ship, I saw a large piece of the rectangular antenna (which had been constantly rotating when we started the attack) go past my cockpit, whirling in the air. A missile aimed at one of the other planes went past on my right. I shouted at him to make an abrupt turn; he did so, very near me, and disappeared in the sky. As we were leaving, banking away to the right, the frigate was enveloped in an enormous cloud of smoke. That burning ship was worth far more than the plane and pilot we had lost. We didn’t know if Lieutenant Luna was alive, but I’m sure he would have exchanged his life for the success of our mission.
One of the bombs – the one dropped by Lieutenant Bernhardt — had struck the stern of the ship, not the forepart; the ‘rotating antenna’ blown into the air which Captain Robles nearly hit was probably Ardent’s Sea Cat launcher, which was blown into the air by Bernhardt’s bomb.
The six other Daggers in action at this time suffered contrasting fortunes. One flight of three aircraft attacked various British ships, though without inflicting serious damage, and returned safely to their base. But the final formation of three Daggers was wiped out, all shot down by Sea Harriers, though all three pilots ejected and survived.
The very last attacks of the day were carried out by six naval Skyhawk pilots, flying in two formations of three aircraft. Both formations flew up Falkland Sound from the south; both were ordered to attack the solitary British ship reported north of Goose Green – Ardent again, though that damaged ship was now nearing the protection of the main group of British ships further up Falkland Sound. Lieutenant-Commander Alberto Philippi was leading the first flight:
Our primary duty was to get that picket ship; if we could hit that, it would enable other aircraft to come in and attack the landing area. Our navigation was good, and we came in and made a good landfall. We descended from 27,000 feet down to 100 feet, closing up the formation because the weather was deteriorating, with low cloud and rain; the ceiling was 500 feet, and visibility was one mile. That was very dangerous for us, because if there was a picket ship at the southern end of Falkland Sound it would have picked us up by radar at fifteen to twenty miles’ range and launch missiles at five miles. Those missiles would have been in the air for four miles before we could see them. We had no radar; the Skyhawk was a very simple, old aircraft.
There was supposed to be one of our Tracker reconnaissance aircraft in the area. We were supposed to call him, and he should have told us where the ship was and directed us in. I called him twice but got no reply. The Tracker pilot told me afterwards that he was there but he couldn’t make contact. We went up the eastern side of the Sound – over lots of islands and bays. We ran into some clearer weather, and both myself and Lieutenant Area saw two masts behind some rocks about eighteen kilometres ahead.
I told the flight to commence the attack, but the ship started to move, quite fast, from behind the rocks; I assume that he was getting away from the coast to gain sea room and be able to manoeuvre at speed. This move meant that we lost the chance to be covered by the rocks in our approach. So I swung right in order to follow the coast, hoping that his radar would lose me in the echoes of the land behind us. If I had been on a freelance mission I could have jumped over that narrow neck of land and attacked the large ships in San Carlos Water, but I had been ordered to go for that picket ship, and we carried on. I could see that it was a Type 21.
We turned and, by the time we were ready to attack, we were in a good position because he was crossing in front of us and I could come in from his port quarter. I dropped my four 500-lb bombs – Mark 82 Snakeyes, each with metal plates to retard them. My number Three shouted out: ‘Bien, señor!’ — ‘Well done, sir!’ Then, a little later, he said: ‘Otra en la popa’ – ‘Another hit on the stern’; that told me that another bomb had hit, one of Area’s. We could not tell whether Márquez was successful; there was no one behind to report his attack.
The second naval Skyhawk flight was led by Lieutenant Benito Rotolo:
Our orders to get the picket ship were changed during the flight, and we were told to go for San Carlos Water; a Tracker aircraft had said that there was no ship in the south end of the Sound now. We went on in radio silence, listening to the conversations in Philippi’s flight; we were very interested in what they were saying about the islands, seeing them for the first time. We were still at high level; we couldn’t hear it all but we could follow their route. I heard them saying they had found a ship and were attacking. Then I heard them talking about Sea Harrier action. I heard Philippi say: ‘I’m OK. I am ejecting.’
Then we made our descent and started our approach. After hearing about the Sea Harriers, I went further inland over East Falkland to get among more hilly ground, intending to go over the Sussex Mountains into the anchorage at San Carlos. But I found that I was having to cross an open bay and was too far to the west. I couldn’t go to my right now, because of our air defences at Goose Green, so I broke radio silence and told my wingmen to be prepared to attack the first ship we met. They acknowledged.
Then we saw two or three ships and prepared to attack. I banked left to approach one of them from the starboard side. The two wingmen checked that they could also see it; it was about four miles away and it seemed to me that it was a Type 21; the other pilots say the same. It opened fire with its guns; I didn’t see any missiles. Its fire was opened very early; I saw the shots falling in the water in front of me. It also increased speed. So I used the tactics we had practised with our Type 42s — continually banking during the final stages of the attack. I was not hit. Then I climbed up to 250 feet and dropped my bombs. As I passed over the ship, I saw men running on the deck; others were firing with machine-guns lashed to the ship, not part of its proper equipment.
I went down fast – 250 feet was very high for that day; you feel very exposed. Our plan was to escape south down Falkland Sound, but I saw a County Class ship right in front of me, shooting off everything he had. We came upon it suddenly when we broke out into a clear patch, and it was all lit up by the sun. I veered sharply away to the right, then had to climb hard to get over the hills in the west island. I alerted the others, and fortunately they understood my short message and were able to turn away as well. So we all escaped, flying low level through the mountains all the way across the island. It was bad weather, but it was good to get away from the ships and all that fire. We were lucky.
Rotolo and his wingmen all returned safely, though the wingmen’s aircraft were both damaged by the blast of bomb explosions. These pilots had at least, like well-trained naval pilots, attacked from sufficient altitude to enable their bombs to explode, even if they had not allowed the recommended twenty-seconds interval between aircraft in order to escape the bomb blast damage to their aircraft.
One aspect of many of the accounts by Argentine pilots is a desire to be associated with attacks on the Ardent, the only ship to sink on that day. There was also an element of inter-service rivalry between the Air Force and the Navy to secure the credit for the sinking. The attack of Rotolo’s flight was squeezed out in the crush of these claims. Some accounts say that he attacked before Philippi and that his bombs all missed or that he attacked another ship, not Ardent. But Rotolo’s evidence is quite clear. He heard Philippi’s flight attacking on the radio and then being intercepted by Sea Harriers. He identified his target as a Type 21 frigate; Ardent was the only such ship in the landing area that day. He describes his attack as coming in from the ship’s starboard side. The captain of the Ardent described one attack from astern (I believe Philippi’s) which scored two hits and then a final attack being made by three light-coloured Skyhawks coming in one after the other from the starboard side, with bombs from the first and second of these aircraft scoring direct hits. I believe that Rotolo’s flight scored these final hits on Ardent and sealed the fate of the ship, which was soon abandoned and sank that night.
But these last successful attacks by the naval pilots were not achieved without serious loss. Rotolo’s flight returned safely to the mainland, but Philippi’s were all lost. That made seven aircraft destroyed out of the sixteen which reached the operational area in that final phase of the day’s action. One of Philippi’s flight – Sub-Lieutenant Marcelo Márquez — was killed when his Skyhawk was shot down by a Sea Harrier. A second aircraft, that of Lieutenant José Area, came to a bizarre end. After being damaged by a Sea Harrier it was still flyable but would not be able to reach the mainland. Area flew to Stanley and reported his difficulty. Major Iannariello, an air force officer there, describes what happened:
A Skyhawk approached the base with some damage to the hydraulic system which feeds such things as the controls, the landing gear, the flaps and the hook, and its fuselage was riddled with holes. We analysed the damage and decided that it would be too dangerous for him to land; the plane would break up and the pilot be killed. So we ordered him to eject over the sea and not on the land where there might be some minefields. We saw him go out, tumbling around in the air like a little puppet until his parachute opened.
To our surprise, the plane seemed to become alive and ready to play a nasty joke on us. For some moments it flew towards the pilot, as if to crash into him, then towards the town, then to the airfield in a lively and playful flight. It looked as if it were happy to be free from its master. Considering the damage it might cause, we ordered our guns to destroy it, but surprisingly enough and in spite of the aim of our gunners, it went on flying without being touched, as if the shells refused to hit a friendly plane. Finally it landed by itself on the beach and was smashed against the rocks with all the dignity of an A-4 Skyhawk. Its pilot was rescued.
Lieutenant-Commander Philippi describes what happened to him:
We tried to escape by flying back down Falkland Sound, weaving a little, hoping to avoid any missiles fired at us from behind, knowing that there were no English ships in front of us. Then, maybe one or two minutes later, I started to relax, engine still at full throttle, thinking that we were clear, when I heard Márquez shouting: ‘Harrier! Harrier!’
My first reaction was to order tanks and bomb racks to be jettisoned and to start evasive action at high G, trying to see where they were. While doing that, while only in the second or third turn, I felt a violent explosion in the tail. The whole plane shuddered and started to climb. I pushed on the stick with both hands but could not get the nose down; there was no response. I looked around, and the Harrier appeared on my right side about 150 to 200 metres away; I think he was coming in for the kill. So I told my wingmen that I was hit, but I was OK and must eject. I tried to shut down the engine, but it did not respond. I opened the air-brakes, but they did not work. I pulled the ejection handle between my legs with my left hand; I didn’t use my right hand to pull the hood release because, as aircraft-carrier pilots, we always keep lateral control; that is why I kept my right hand on the stick. If you lose the stick, the plane may start to turn, and if you eject when banking you go straight into the sea when you are low – so a naval pilot never leaves go of the stick. There was a huge explosion, and I was thrown out at 500 knots. I lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes I was falling near the edge of Falkland Sound, quite close to where the abandoned Rio Carcaraña was. I saw a splash – either my own or Márquez’s aircraft going in. I swam the 200 metres to land but was so tired that I could only crawl up the beach.
I was out there for four days, the first night in the open, the second and third in a building called Congo House. On the fourth day I was walking to Wreck House when I saw some men working near the coast. They had a Land-Rover. I thought they were Argentine troops and I signalled with a mirror, but it was Mr Tony Blake from North Arm Settlement. He was very polite, introduced himself and gave me my first food – sandwiches, cakes and chocolate. We went to North Arm, where I met the family and had a bath. He was a very nice person, one hundred per cent. We informed Puerto Argentino next day, and I was taken by helicopter to Goose Green.
The last personal account of this day’s action comes from First Lieutenant Luna, the Dagger pilot whose friends thought he had flown into a hill. But Luna had been shot down by a Sea Harrier when the flight of four aircraft flew in single file through a valley when forced down by low cloud. Luna was in the last aircraft:
On entering the valley, I saw a shadow passing over me to my left. Almost simultaneously there was a flash in the mirrors and the impact of a missile on my plane; it became uncontrollable. I tried to gain altitude, but the plane was nose down and inverted. I thought I was going to die. Releasing the stick, I desperately searched for the upper ejection handle. That is when I found that I was right side upward again, because the ejection was normal. I heard the explosion, felt a jerk, and the parachute opened almost at the same time as I hit the ground. I broke a bone in my shoulder and dislocated an arm and a knee.
It was getting dark, and I knew I wouldn’t be found just yet, so I fixed my knee and gathered together all the means of survival. After inflating the dinghy, I dragged it towards me with the aid of its retaining rope, got myself inside it and prepared a bed with part of my equipment and the parachute. Then I drank a litre of water from a plastic container and swallowed seven analgesic pills one by one to soothe the terrible pain I was in. During that terrible night, half awake, I heard the noise of an engine so I fired a flare, but this brought no response. Clenching my teeth, for it was really cold, I fell asleep until about nine the following morning.
When I woke up I found myself in a valley surrounded by mountains, about 20 kilometres west of Port Howard. I looked for useful pieces of my plane and with the aid of my knife turned them into a metal splint for my leg; I must have looked like a modern pirate. Putting all the useful things into the dinghy, which I dragged with a rope, I set off. I can only imagine my odd appearance with my metal leg and my load behind. By 12.30 I could drag the dinghy no further so I abandoned it. I kept on walking, with great difficulty because of my leg, following the direction of the noise I had heard during the night. About 15.15 I came across a man and a woman in a Land-Rover followed by three more people riding motor cycles. I signalled to them desperately, but they continued on their way without a word, leaving me alone. My leg hurt terribly, and my shoulder was numb. Hobbling along with my metal leg, I followed the vehicle tracks. It became more and more difficult, but coming round a hill I came across a house with the vehicles parked in front of it. The people watched my approach. I thought they might kill me or hand me over to the enemy, yet I was aware that I would not be able to get anywhere in the wretched condition I was in. They came to me in the Land-Rover when I was about 400 metres from the house. At first they were unwilling to help me; one of them in particular objected vehemently.
I realized they were anxiously looking at my survival equipment, so I gave them my knife, the flight gloves and the torch. This obviously had a calming effect on them, and they agreed to carry me to the house of a man with a radio. This man turned out to be a true ‘English gentleman’; he looked after me and said he would help me to get back to my people. We contacted Puerto Argentino. After this he provided me with pain-killing tablets every three hours for two days until our people came to get me.
So ended the 21 May air attacks. The number of aircraft dispatched from the mainland totalled 45 — 26 Skyhawks and 19 Daggers ; 36 of these reached the Falklands and 26 carried out attacks on British ships. The Ardent was sinking; Antrim and Argonaut were temporarily out of action with unexploded bombs inside them; Brilliant and Broadsword had been damaged by cannon fire. Thirty-two British sailors were dead and more than twenty others were injured. The Argentine pilots had pressed home their attacks with great courage, but two important mistakes had been made. The emphasis on attacking the warships in Falkland Sound allowed the landing ships in San Carlos Water to carry on discharging troops, guns and stores in relative safety at a time when the ground missile defences were not yet established. The importance of this error cannot be overemphasized; the Argentine pilots would never again find the transport ships in San Carlos Water so vulnerable to air attack. The second mistake was that most of the air force pilots flew too low, with the result that their bombs did not explode. This is only a muted comment because attacks at altitudes any higher than the ‘on the deck’ approaches made by so many Argentine pilots would have brought them a higher casualty rate – but more success. The cost had been grievous enough. Ten Argentine aircraft – five Daggers and five Skyhawks – failed to return to the mainland, all but one shot down or hit by Sea Harriers; this was more than a quarter of the Argentine aircraft which reached the scene of action.