The arrival of the new British brigade and its subsequent move up to the front led to the worst British setback of the war. A series of night transfers by sea caused two British ships – the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram — to be left exposed in daylight in an undefended inlet on the south coast of the Falklands on the morning of 7 June. The place was Port Pleasant, ‘Bahía Agradable’ to the Argentines. The persistent low cloud of the last few days had cleared, and it was a bright day of good visibility. The Sir Tristram was almost empty, but the newly arrived Sir Galahad was packed with troops, ammunition, fuel and vehicles. The arrangements for disembarking the troops and removing them from the danger of air attack failed, and most of them remained on board all through the morning.
The Sir Tristram had been observed from Argentine positions on Mount Harriet, 10 miles away, on the previous day, and now, on this morning, the second ship was also seen. The report reached the mainland, and a sizeable air effort was ordered. Eight Skyhawks and six Daggers of the 5th and 6th Fighter Groups were loaded with bombs and sent by a southerly route to attack the anchorage. A Learjet would lead in the attack flights and provide accurate navigation almost as far as the islands. Preceding the arrival of all these aircraft by a few minutes would be four Mirages of the 8th Fighter Group, which would be making their first appearance in the combat area since 1 May. They were to simulate a low-level attack along the north coast of the islands; but this was a decoy flight, and they were to turn away and return to base as soon as they attracted the attention of the Sea Harrier patrols. Vice-Admiral Lombardo mentions a further small element in the Argentine plans. He states that the Type 42 destroyer Santísima Trinidad was off the Argentine coast that day carrying out radio interference operations on the frequencies used by the British air controllers.
The Argentine aircraft took off in the late morning, but three Skyhawks – including both flight leaders – and a Dagger turned back because of various problems. The Mirage decoy flight was successful and temporarily attracted the attention of the Sea Harrier patrols. The five Daggers were the first of the attack aircraft to reach the islands, but their eastward flight to Port Pleasant was abandoned when one member of the flight spotted a solitary warship in Falkland Sound. The Daggers turned and made a very good attack on that ship – the frigate Plymouth — and hit it with four bombs. But once again none of these exploded, although the ship was damaged, and four of her crew were injured. Only one Dagger was slightly damaged by the ship’s defensive fire, and they all returned safely to the mainland.
This left five Skyhawks to carry on and look for the two landing ships at Port Pleasant. The Mirage decoy flight and then the Dagger attack on the Plymouth left no Sea Harrier patrols available to intercept this raid, and the two ships they were seeking were almost defenceless. The earlier turning back of the two flight leaders left First Lieutenant Cachón, flying only his third war mission, to lead the now combined flight of five Skyhawks. Cachón provides an account which shows how the Skyhawks nearly missed their targets by being told that the ships were in Port Fitzroy, which was just north of Port Pleasant. Cachón’s account starts with his taking over the leadership of the flight when his own leader had to turn back: 27
I became flight leader. I had never had that responsibility before but now, suddenly and by chance, I found myself in charge not only of one flight but of two. Before he left, the Captain told me: ‘Attack at one minute intervals, three aircraft ahead and two behind…. Take them to glory!’ A very simple request, wasn’t it? I felt a chill run up my spine but then I felt calmer, because the men who were following me were perfectly qualified for that kind of operation and the success of the mission depended on my command.
The succession of checkpoints forced me to concentrate on the flight. Over Cabo Belgrano [the southern tip of West Falkland] we went through a rainy area for a few seconds. Then we crossed over the southern part of Falkland Sound. The sea was full of gulls floating calmly. We passed another checkpoint at Aquila Island [Speedwell Island] and then met a second area of rain, but we flew on heading straight towards Fitzroy. It poured with rain again for thirty seconds; during that time you can cover a distance of around eight kilometres. I was about to return, because I was afraid that the rain would cover all the islands, but fortunately we managed to see a clearance behind the curtain of water, and this encouraged me to continue with the planned course. As we got nearer to the target I ordered the flight to accelerate to 900 kph and stay right down on the sea.
Forty seconds before the target we saw a Sea Lynx helicopter, so I hid behind a hill to avoid being detected. Twenty seconds later we found a Sea King on the ground; we performed the same manoeuvre and then reached Fitzroy Bay. There was nothing to be seen! I decided to fly on for another thirty seconds, but after that we turned right to start the return flight. Down on the ground we could see many British soldiers, who began shooting at us. A missile crossed behind our flight line from right to left at an angle of about 30 degrees. Just as we were completing the turn, ‘Diablo’ shouted: ‘There are the ships!’ Two grey silhouettes could be seen near the coast. I straightened up and banked to the left. Here we go again!
I released my bombs, which scored direct hits on the Sir Galahad. Number Two’s bombs went long but luckily they hit a vehicle, overturned it and then they exploded. Ensign Carmona also hit the target. The section coming behind us saw that the ship had been hit so they attacked the Sir Tristram; ‘Chango’ and ‘Diablo’ did not waste their bombs. There was a long pipe on the deck where many life-jackets were tidily placed. Little men – little when seen from the distance – ran towards them, took one each and, one after the other, jumped into the cold sea.
I escaped by hugging the water. I checked to see if we were all there. We were. We looked at each other’s damage; the ‘Chango’ and the ‘Diablo’ had been hit but not seriously. The enemy had been greatly hurt that day, and I had carried out what my flight leader had asked me to do: ‘Take them to glory.’
Cachón and the other four pilots had made one of the best-executed Argentine air attacks of the war. The small amount of defensive fire had enabled them to come in at sufficient height to allow most of their bombs enough time in flight to become live, and the pilots’ aim had been good. The three bombs which struck the Sir Galahad exploded and started a fierce fire. Forty-eight men died here, and the ship was completely gutted. One of the two bombs which hit the Sir Tristram exploded, causing less serious damage and killing two Hong Kong Chinese seamen. This was all a considerable setback to the British preparations for the attack on Stanley and was a clear success for the Argentines.
When the Skyhawks returned to their base and reported the success, it was decided to send out two more formations of four Skyhawks to continue the attacks in an attempt to add to the damage already caused to the British. Four aircraft of the 4th Fighter Group made the first attack, roaring in over the British units deployed around Fitzroy. But this area was well defended, and the units there greeted the Skyhawks with a hail of fire from every type of infantry weapon and from Rapier missile launchers. This attack caused no casualties to the British troops. The four Argentine aircraft were all damaged, and, if the Sir Galahad attack was one of the best Argentine air attacks of the war, this was one of the most fortunate for the Argentines because the damaged planes only managed to return to San Julián by the narrowest of margins.
The last Argentine air operation of that memorable day scored a minor success but then ran out of luck. Four Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group found a lone British landing craft in the Choiseul Sound. The first two Skyhawks attacked, and a bomb and some cannon fire all but destroyed the small craft, killing six of the men on board. But a pair of Sea Harriers saw the attack and swiftly disposed of three of the four Skyhawks, a Sidewinder missile causing the first one to explode in a fireball, another Sidewinder cutting the second aircraft in half and the third aircraft crashing into the shore, its pilot trying to outrun and evade the Sidewinder chasing it. All three pilots were killed. The very shaken fourth pilot only just made it to a Hercules tanker which helped him home. Some Mirages flying as escort at 35,000 feet were unable to intervene in the action.
The Argentine troops on Mount Harriet observed the attack on the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram and saw the smoke from the Galahad’s fierce fire. News of the serious British casualties also reached Stanley, and some consideration was given to moving out a force of troops and attempting an attack on the British in the Fitzroy area while they were still unbalanced and recovering from the aftereffects of the blow. But to make such an attack would have meant leaving the artillery cover of the prepared defences and moving into an area under direct observation by the British, with all the response from British artillery and air attack which that would entail. It was decided not to make any move.