San Carlos Waters II

Nightfall came and brought relief from action and danger. The work of unloading the British ships progressed sufficiently to allow the Canberra and three other large ships to be released, and these were sent back to the comparative safety of the task force out at sea. The damaged destroyer Antrim also departed as their escort. The sailings of these ships provided room in San Carlos Water for the warships which had been left out in Falkland Sound exposed to air attack the previous day. In less than twenty-four hours the British landed all of their fighting units – more than 3,000 infantry, 24 field guns, 8 light tanks and a battery of Rapier anti-aircraft missile launchers.

The Argentine commanders at Stanley had discussed the possibility that the British might land well away from Stanley and had recognized that a direct attack against such a British move would be difficult to accomplish. Brigadier-General Menéndez’s first action was to request air attack from the mainland, and this had clearly been granted. Menéndez and his staff had always believed that the first forty-eight hours after a landing would be critical; after that the British would be too well established ashore for an attack to have any chance of success. The big question to be decided at Stanley was whether this was the main British landing or only a diversion. There were no Argentine troops in contact with the beach-head or even observing it from a distance. Future air flights over the area would have little chance of obtaining reliable details of how many British troops were ashore.

Menéndez ordered two immediate staff studies, the first a combined one by his own staff and that of Brigadier-General Parada – because the landing had taken place in Parada’s area – and the second by Brigadier-General Jofre’s staff, who, being responsible for the Stanley area, were not directly involved but whose separate opinion might be useful. A final joint conference then took place under Colonel Cervo, Menéndez’s chief intelligence officer. The conclusion reached was that the British had landed less than a brigade of troops at San Carlos and that most of a second brigade was still available for a further landing elsewhere. It was decided not to launch the helicopter-borne reserve; the single company of infantry available would have had a tough time anyway against so substantial a landing. The only direct move ordered was that some 105-mm guns would be sent by sea to Goose Green; the garrison there had no artillery. Two guns of the 4th Air Mobile Regiment were dismantled and loaded on to the Coast Guard vessel Rio Iguazú, which sailed from Stanley at 4.00 a.m. the next day.

But the next morning, 22 May, started with an immediate Argentine setback. Because of its late sailing, the Rio Iguazú was at sea when daylight came, still 13 miles from its destination. In an example of sheer bad luck for the Argentines, the first two Sea Harriers of the day to take off from Hermes passed right over the ship, and one of them came down and seriously damaged it with cannon fire. Two Coast Guard seamen were injured, and one of them later died. The ship ran aground, but a mission was later mounted from Goose Green to salvage the two guns and other stores. A helicopter lowered an air force officer, a young army officer and several men on to the boat, and these men went into the flooded cargo hold and reclaimed the guns, which were taken to Goose Green in time for the battle there; one of the guns was damaged, but the other was made serviceable. The young army officer will be met again. His name was Second Lieutenant Juan Gómez Centurion.

The fatally wounded Coast Guard man was the only person to die on 22 May. The remainder of that day was an anticlimax. Bad weather in mainland Argentina prevented air operations from the bases there for most of the day. Only two Skyhawks reached the landing area in the evening; their bombs caused no damage, and they returned safely to their base.

The next two days – 23 and 24 May – constituted another period of sundry blow and counter-blow. These started with the small coaster Monsunen (230 tons) being attacked. This was one of two local ships taken over by the Argentines. The British had learned — probably from radio intercepts – that she was sailing by night from Goose Green to Stanley, and two Lynx helicopters caught her in the early hours of 23 May. The crew of the Monsunen defended themselves well with machine-guns, but the ship was eventually forced ashore. She was later towed back to Goose Green but she would be out of use until the British captured Goose Green and set the ship working again for their side. The loss to Argentine service of the Monsunen now made a total of five ships used by the Argentines for local supply work put out of action by British naval ships or aircraft: Isla de los Estados, Bahia Buen Suceso, Rio Carcaraña, Rio Iguazú and Monsunen. This left only the large and unwieldy Formosa and the tiny ships Forrest, Islas Malvinas and Yehuin to carry on the hazardous work of transporting supplies to outlying garrisons. In fact there was not much further movement, and those minor operations by the Royal Navy were a major cause of the chronic lack of manoeuvrability suffered by the Argentine forces in the Falklands in the last weeks of the war.

The damaging of the Monsunen was followed immediately by another blow to Argentine mobility. Two Sea Harriers on patrol over West Falkland spotted a group of four Argentine army helicopters – three Pumas and an Augusta – which were carrying ammunition to the Port Howard garrison. The Harriers attacked with cannon fire, and two Pumas and the Augusta were destroyed, though amazingly no one was killed. The Argentine army’s helicopter force in the Falklands was now reduced to ten serviceable aircraft, out of the nineteen originally available.

But the main focus of attention during those two days continued to be on the San Carlos area, where the build-up of the British beach-head was interrupted by many Argentine air attacks. These raids all came from the mainland; the locally based air units were down to very low numbers of serviceable aircraft, and these were not risked against the now strongly defended area. The dangerous task of attacking the British landings was left to the Skyhawks and Daggers of the 4th, 5th and 6th Fighter Groups with a little help from the few remaining naval Skyhawk pilots. It is not known how many sorties were dispatched from the mainland during those two days but it is believed that only thirty-three reached the San Carlos area. The Argentine attacks became more ragged now under the constant pressure and strain of operations; more aircraft became unserviceable ; link-ups with the refuelling Hercules tankers did not always succeed. But the Argentine pilots showed no lack of courage and pressed home their attacks as valiantly as ever. Four ships were hit by bombs during these two days; again the attacks were from too low an altitude, and not one of the bombs exploded on hitting the ships. But the frigate Antelope, hit by two bombs dropped by Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group on 23 May, blew up the night after the attack while attempts were being made to defuse one of the bombs. Most of the ship’s crew had already been evacuated, and only two men died, but Antelope sank later, the first major success for the Argentine Air Force. The bombs in the other three ships which were hit were all removed safely, and they were not out of action for long.

For these successes, the Argentines lost six more aircraft — four Daggers and two Skyhawks — though the British ships and ground defences claimed many more. The Argentines named the area ‘Death Valley’; the British called it ‘Bomb Alley’. Four of the six shot-down pilots died. The 3rd Naval Fighter and Attack Squadron had to be withdrawn from action after 23 May. It dispatched four Skyhawks on that day; two were damaged over San Carlos, and a third suffered a calamity on its return to Rio Grande. The four 500-lb bombs had ‘hung up’ over San Carlos, and the pilot, Lieutenant-Commander Carlos Zubizarreta, could not shake them off. A stiff crosswind at Rio Grande’s only runway caused the Skyhawk to swerve during the landing. Probably fearing the explosion of the bombs, Zubizarreta ejected, but the Skyhawk was tilting and he was not thrown clear enough for the parachute to open and he died. The bombs did not explode, and the Skyhawk was later repaired, but the casualties on this day left this small unit with only one serviceable aircraft from the eight available three days earlier, and the squadron was temporarily withdrawn from offensive operations. This was a major setback to the Argentine air effort because these naval pilots were the best qualified for ship attack.

Lieutenant-Commander Zubizarreta’s death brought the number of Argentine pilots to die in those two days to five. Only two other Argentines lost their lives at that time. A conscript of the 12th, Regiment at Goose Green died of illness; the diary of a member of his unit mentions malnutrition, but it was probably the privations of open-air campaigning which caused the young man’s illness and death. The other death was at Stanley airfield, where an anti-aircraft gunner had the misfortune to be hit on the head by a piece of rock when a delayed action bomb exploded just as he was walking from his foxhole to the field kitchen for lunch; he died at once.

The British deaths during the two days were two men on HMS Antelope and a Sea Harrier pilot who died when his aircraft exploded and crashed into the sea soon after taking off from HMS Hermes on the evening of 23 May.

Tuesday 25 May was Argentina’s National Day, and a combination of chance circumstance together with the skill of Argentine pilots would make it one of the best days of the war for their cause, a day of glory comparable only to 2 April when they occupied the Falklands.

The early action of the day stemmed from Rear-Admiral Woodward’s decision to risk two of his air defence ships in an exposed forward position in order to give relief from air attack to the ships and land units in the San Carlos area. The two ships were Coventry, equipped with Sea Dart, and Broadsword, which was equipped with Sea Wolf. Working from an open sea position off Pebble Island, 40 miles north-west of San Carlos, the primary role of the ships was to give early warning of incoming raids to the San Carlos defences. But the combination of missiles and radars in the ships could directly engage Argentine aircraft at ranges of up to 12 miles and vector Sea Harriers on to other aircraft at greater ranges. The plan was working well. Sea Harriers had been vectored on to one raid the previous day, and three Argentine aircraft had been shot down. But the ships were clearly detectable by the Argentine radars on Pebble Island and could even be seen visually by the ‘air watchers’ on the hills there. The Argentine air command decided to attack these ships.

The first opportunity to strike at the ships was given to the 5th Fighter Group at Rio Gallegos. Careful preparations were made. The take-off of the four Skyhawks involved was before dawn, and the aircraft were all refuelled by a Hercules tanker, also during darkness, to allow them ample time to set up their attack in the combat area. Another Hercules made a preliminary reconnaissance, established by radar the exact location of the two ships and radioed this information to the Skyhawk flight. But this well-prepared operation ended in disaster for the Argentine side. The Skyhawk flight probably left its descent to sea level too late, and Coventry detected the planes and fired a Sea Dart which hit the Skyhawk of the flight leader, Captain Hugo del Valle Palaver. The Skyhawk crashed; the pilot was killed, and the three remaining aircraft decided to abandon the operation. (An early post-war version, that Captain Palaver’s Skyhawk was shot down in error by Argentine anti-aircraft gunners at Goose Green, was incorrect.)

Another raid against the beach-head area followed soon afterwards. Four Skyhawks of the 4th Fighter Group from San Julián made a good, indirect approach overland but when they attacked the anchorage the bombs of two aircraft failed to release and the attacks of the other Skyhawks failed to score any hits. The aircraft of Lieutenant Ricardo Lucero was shot down, but Lucero managed to eject and was rescued from the water by the British. His friends back at San Julián saw his injuries being treated on HMS Fearless in a television news programme that night. He was the only pilot from a mainland air unit to be taken prisoner by the British during the war. The formation’s ill fortune continued when the aircraft of the flight leader, Captain Jorge Garcia, was shot down by another of Coventry’s Sea Darts; this was the second formation leader Coventry shot down that day. No one saw Garcia’s Skyhawk crash, but he must have ejected and survived temporarily, because his body was found in a dinghy on a remote beach on West Falkland more than a year later. The remaining two Skyhawks reached their base, though one of them was badly damaged and losing fuel all the way home. Some extravagant claims were later made on this flight’s behalf. One of the returning aircraft had the symbol of a Type 21 frigate and the day’s date painted on its nose, and the dead Captain Garcia was wrongly credited with forcing a pursuing Sea Harrier to fly into the ground on his way into the target area.

That afternoon a further raid was mounted against the two ships off Pebble Island which were causing so much trouble. Two flights of three Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group were prepared, but one aircraft was withdrawn before take-off, and another had to return early. So just two pairs of Skyhawks proceeded. They were helped in their final approach by various interesting means. They were in touch with two senior Skyhawk pilots flying as passengers in a support plane, probably a Hercules, which was keeping distant radar surveillance on the British ships. They were also in touch with the Stanley air control, which was in turn receiving information from Pebble Island where a naval pilot, Sub-Lieutenant Daniel Manzella, was perched on a hilltop with a pair of binoculars and could see both ships and the local Sea Harrier patrols on this clear day. A Spanish-speaking officer on HMS Coventry was actually listening to the Argentine reports. The four Skyhawks approached in radio silence, taking in all the information broadcast for their benefit.

For once, the fortunes of war swung in the Argentines’ favour. The two pairs of Skyhawks came in almost simultaneously but from different directions. They were detected by the ships’ radars, but some malfunctions in the missile equipment and some tactical mishandling of the ships themselves prevented Coventry’s early Sea Darts from being launched and also stopped Broadsword from launching any of her close-defence Sea Wolf missiles at all. Worse still, two Sea Harriers which had been in perfect position to intercept were warned to break off and keep away to allow the ships’ missile systems freedom of action. Coventry only managed to fire one Sea Dart, but it was at too close a range for that type of missile, and the incoming Skyhawks cleverly avoided it. The gunfire of the two ships also failed to stop the incoming attack.

Captain Pablo Carballo’s pair came in first. Carballo had had an adventurous but frustrating war so far. On his first mission, on 1 May, he had attacked an Argentine merchant ship by mistake. On 21 May his wingmen had attacked another Argentine ship, leaving Carballo to carry on and make a solo attack on HMS Ardent, but his bomb narrowly missed that ship. Two days later another of his wingmen had dropped the bombs which were responsible for Antelope‘s subsequent explosion and loss. Now Carballo was facing British fire again, his third close attack on a British warship in five days, hampered this time by a film of salt which had formed on the front of his cockpit canopy. An air force biochemist had developed a special anti-salt solution for this low-flying work, but an overhelpful groundcrew man had polished Carballo’s cockpit canopy so vigorously that morning that the solution had all been removed. Carballo and his wingman, Lieutenant Carlos Rinke, commenced their attack run, low down on the water, running in fast. This is Carballo’s account:

The two imposing warships were surrounded by a slight mist, silhouetted against the horizon, far from the coast. I said to myself, ‘Things are going to be difficult, for we will be exposed to their fire for a long time.’ I applied full power, pressed the push-button of my VHF equipment, shouted: ‘Viva la Patria!’ and began my final run in to attack. I remember how small I felt when, with my solitary but sturdy wingman, I began to attack those huge steel structures. In order to deter us, they began shooting as soon as we let down over the water, long before we came within range.

Their shots fell well ahead of us at first, the shells forming tracers in the air and the water splashing, while the ships themselves were covered with smoke with every shot fired. For a moment I thought I was living through a film of one of those old naval battles. I could never have dreamed, three months before, that I would be undergoing such a terrible yet fascinating experience. The curtain of fire was really dense, for both ships gave us everything they had. I couldn’t see how close their fire was because I had to look through the side of the windshield.

My wingman asked me: ‘Which one shall we tackle?’ ‘The rear one; it is less well protected,’ I replied. The two ships had begun to move fast, heading east, sailing roughly 200 metres one from the other. When I could see the huge ship I was attacking through both sides of my partly covered windshield, I pressed the bomb release switch, probably taking a little longer than usual due to the difficulty I had in seeing. I remember that when I dropped my bombs, the other ship was still firing at me. I immediately asked: ‘Are you there, Number Two?’ and with deep joy heard him shout: ‘Yes, sir. Right behind you.

I can see you.’ Almost at the same time, I heard another voice on the frequency saying: ‘My target is in sight, and I am going in.’ That was the other two pilots starting their attack.

Carballo and his wingman had made a good attack but again he was to be unlucky. One of the bombs skipped off the sea and came up through the side of Broadsword, out through the deck, removing the nose of the ship’s Lynx helicopter, and dropped back into the sea again without exploding. This was extremely bad luck because a new type of nose fuse was fitted to the bombs being used that day, and if the bomb had hit anything substantial it would have exploded, at the very least causing serious damage to the British ship.

The second pair of Skyhawks was flown by First Lieutenant Mariano Velasco, who was also seeking some success after several disappointing sorties, and young Ensign Jorge Barrionuevo, who was probably on his first war mission. These pilots flew unscathed through the British fire. Barrionuevo’s bombs failed to release, but, in one of the best ship attacks of the war, Velasco put all of his three bombs into Coventry. They plunged deep into the ship, exploded and caused the ship to sink. The four Skyhawks returned safely to the mainland and to a big celebratory dinner. The unit had sunk one ship, damaged another and removed that British presence off Pebble Island which had been causing the Argentines so much trouble. The only pilot of the unit lost on an earlier raid in the day, Captain del Valle Palaver, was believed by his comrades to have had a good chance of ejecting safely over land, so his absence did not mar the celebration. His friends did not know that he was dead.

The story of the second major Argentine success of the day can be told more quickly, because there was no close contact between the opposing forces and because no personal account is available from the Argentine side; but it was just as important as the sinking of the Coventry, probably more so. The Super Étendard squadron had been waiting patiently at Rio Grande for the firm intelligence which would allow it to carry out another Exocet attack. That morning the air command at Stanley detected the location of the main British task force about 100 miles north-east of Stanley; the task force had been forced to come in closer than before because of the need to support the landing force under air attack at San Carlos. Lieutenant-Commander Roberto Curilovic and Lieutenant Julio Barraza were at the head of the roster and took off in mid-afternoon. In a perfectly executed operation, the two Super Étendards were refuelled and then approached the task force from the north. They detected the British ships at their first attempt, launched their Exocets and turned away, hoping as always that the British aircraft-carriers would be hit. One Exocet found a target when the large container ship Atlantic Conveyor was struck on its port side. The missile penetrated deep into the ship, exploded and started a fierce fire. The Argentine pilots had come closer to hitting an aircraft-carrier than they knew. The task force was always deployed in such a way that other ships were positioned between the vital aircraft-carriers and the likely approach of Exocets. Atlantic Conveyor was in the last row of those protective ships, and if she had not attracted the missile it might have run on into the aircraft-carrier area.

Thus ended a most successful Argentine National Day. At a cost of three aircraft lost, with two pilots dead and one a prisoner of war, the Argentine units had sunk the destroyer Coventry, damaged the Broadsword and caused the total loss through fire of the Atlantic Conveyor with its hugely valuable cargo of military stores and helicopters. Nineteen British sailors died in Coventry and twelve in Atlantic Conveyor.

But the successes of 25 May would prove to be the high watermark of the Argentine air effort. There were only two further small raids against the San Carlos landing area, by six Skyhawks on 27 May and by four Daggers two days later. The first raid caused seven deaths and some injuries to British troops when shore positions were bombed for the first time. Mariano Velasco, the pilot who had sunk Coventry two days earlier, was shot down on this raid but he ejected and survived. No success was achieved on the second raid, but another aircraft was lost. This time the pilot was killed; he was Lieutenant Juan Bernhardt, the man who had put the first bomb into HMS Ardent on 21May.

Those raids concluded the mainland air effort against the British landing area. In nine days of intensive operations, approximately 120 sorties had been launched, of which about 90 reached the operational area. Three warships – Ardent, Antelope and Coventry — had been sunk in or near the landing area. Three more warships and three amphibious ships had been hit by bombs which failed to explode. Other ships had suffered superficial damage by cannon fire. Casualties had been inflicted to land units in one raid. In addition, the Super Étendards had destroyed the Atlantic Conveyor. The pilots of the Argentine Air Force and Navy had done their best and were willing to continue the attacks, but the British defences were now so well established that there was no longer any prospect of achieving a decisive success that would influence the outcome of the war. The British had been severely shaken by the air attacks but they were now firmly established ashore and ready to move out from the beach-head. The Argentine losses had been appalling. Twenty-one aircraft had been shot down, nearly a quarter of those which reached the operational area. Twelve of the aircraft were shot down by Sea Harriers, eight by ships’ or shore units’ weapons and one by a combination of all three causes.

Unfortunately the Argentine propaganda service sullied the efforts of the air units by publishing outrageous claims on their behalf. The Gaceta Argentina at Stanley no doubt reflected the Buenos Aires line when it published a supposed list of all Argentine successes up to 25 May: 5 warships sunk (the actual figure was 3); 3 transport ships including Canberra sunk (Atlantic Conveyor was the only loss); 14 Sea Harriers destroyed (only 2 actually shot down plus 3 more lost accidentally); 12 helicopters destroyed (only 3 plus some accidents); many ships ‘seriously damaged’ including HMS Hermes (which had not been scratched). The Gaceta concluded: ‘All of these details refer only to proven claims and not to estimated or unproven claims.’

Air attack had been the only real threat to the success of the British landings. The Argentine Navy did not put in an appearance, though its Skyhawks and Super Étendard air squadrons had performed courageously and effectively. The powerful army garrison in the Falklands did not interfere in the landings in any way, not even with commando operations. After First Lieutenant Esteban and his men withdrew from Port San Carlos on the first morning, there was not a single contact between British and Argentine troops until 27 May when Royal Marines captured an Argentine marine officer who had installed himself on high ground overlooking San Carlos and was presumably reporting British movements by radio back to Stanley. The name of this brave man was Lieutenant-Commander Dante Camiletti.


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