“River Raid on Korea”

Map of the American Naval Operations in Korea, 1871.

The largest-scale combat in which Leathernecks participated in the three decades following the Civil War was the Korean Expedition of 1871. On 23 May of that year, five vessels of Rear Admiral John Rodgers’s Asiatic Fleet—the frigate Colorado, sloops Alaska and Benicia, and gunboats Monocacy and Palos—entered Roze Roads on the west coast of Korea not far from Chemulpo (modern-day Inchon). Aboard Admiral Rodgers’s flagship, the Colorado, was Frederick F. Low, the U.S. minister to China, who had been sent to open diplomatic relations with the hermit kingdom of Korea. Contact was made with the local inhabitants, and on the 31st a small delegation of third- and fifth-rank Korean officials appeared. Low refused to receive them, directing his secretary to explain that the presence of first-rank officials qualified to conduct negotiations was required. In the meantime, the Koreans were informed, the Americans desired to chart the Salee River, as the channel of the Han River between Kanghwa-do (island) and the Kumpo Peninsula was then called. As the Han leads to the capital city of Seoul, the Koreans might have been expected to consider such an act provocative, American assurances of goodwill notwithstanding, but they raised no objections. Twenty-four hours were allotted for them to notify the appropriate authorities.

Accordingly, at noon on 1 June, four steam launches followed by the Monocacy and Palos set out to begin the survey. As they came abreast of the fortifications on the heights of Kanghwa-do, the Koreans opened fire. The surveying party replied with gusto, shelling the forts into silence, and returned to the fleet’s anchorage. American casualties were two men wounded.

Admiral Rodgers waited nine days for an apology or better tides. The former was not forthcoming, and on 10 June a punitive expedition entered the river with the mission of capturing and destroying the errant forts. The landing force numbered 686 officers and men, including 109 Marines organized into two little companies and a naval battery of seven 12-pounder howitzers. Fire support would be provided by the gunboats and four steam launches mounting 12-pounders in their bows. Commander L. A. Kimberly was placed in command of the landing force; Captain McLane Tilton led its Leathernecks. Tilton was one of those unconventional characters for whom the Corps has always seemed to exercise an attraction. (Writing his wife from a Mediterranean deployment, he reported that when he first went on deck each day, “If anyone asks me how are you old fellow, I reply, ‘I don’t feel very well; no gentleman is ever well in the morning.’”)

Three forts, each with a walled water-battery, overlooked the shore of Kanghwa-do. In the course of the operation, the Americans christened them the Marine Redoubt, Fort Monocacy, and The Citadel. The Monocacy took the first two under fire shortly after noon. Both had been silenced by the time the Palos appeared with the landing party’s boats in tow about an hour later. The boats cast off half a mile below the nearest fort, and at 1345 that afternoon the Bluejackets and Marines began struggling ashore across a broad, knee-deep mudflat “crossed by deep sluices,” a disgusted Tilton noted, “filled with softer and still deeper mud.” Some men left their shoes, socks, leggings, and even trouser legs behind, and the howitzers bogged down to their barrels. Fortunately, the Koreans did not attempt to oppose the landing.

The Leathernecks had been selected to serve as the expedition’s advance guard. Tilton deployed them into a skirmish line as soon as they left the boats. Once both companies reached firm ground, Commander Kimberly ordered Tilton to lead his Marines toward the fort, an elliptical stone redoubt with 12-foot walls. Most of the sailors remained behind to manhandle the guns out of the muck. On the Marines’ approach, the fort’s white-robed defenders fled, firing a few parting shots. The work mounted 54 guns, but all except two were insignificant brass breechloaders. Tilton halted his men until the main body came up, “when we were again ordered to push forward,” he wrote, “which we did, scouring the fields as far as practicable from the left of the line of march, the river being on our right, and took a position on a wooded knoll . . . commanding a fine view of the beautiful hills and inundated rice fields immediately around us.” At this point he received orders to hold for the night. It was 1630 before the guns had been dragged ashore, and too few hours of daylight remained to demolish the captured fort and tackle the next. The seamen bivouacked half a mile to the rear.

The landing force moved out at 0530 the next morning. Its fire support had been reduced by the withdrawal of the Palos, which had hurt herself on an uncharted rock while the landing was in progress, but that available from the Monocacy and the launches would prove more than sufficient. The second fort, a chipped granite structure about 90 feet square, stood on a bluff a mile upstream. Tilton’s men found it deserted. While a Marine bugler amused himself by rolling 33 little brass cannon over the bluff into the river, other members of the expedition spiked the fort’s four big guns and tore down two of its walls. The march was then resumed.

The track between the first two forts had been relatively easy going, but beyond the second it became extremely difficult, “the topography of the country being indescribable,” Tilton reported, “resembling a sort of ‘chopped sea’ of immense hills and deep ravines lying in every conceivable position.” Presently the column came under long-range musket fire from a Korean force estimated to number from 2,000 to 5,000 among some hills beyond the Americans’ left flank. Five guns supported by three companies of seamen were deployed to hold this body in check, and the remainder of the party continued its advance. On two occasions the Koreans made a rush toward the detachment, but a few artillery shells turned them back each time.

The last and strongest of the Korean fortifications, The Citadel, was a stone redoubt crowning a steep, conical hill on a peninsula some two miles upstream from its neighbor. The Monocacy and the steam launches opened fire on the Citadel at about 1100. At noon, Commander Kimberly halted his command 600 yards from the fort to give the men a breather. By that time, the parties of Koreans seen falling back on The Citadel and the forest of flags in and around it left no doubt that the position would be defended.

After signaling the Monocacy to cease fire, the storming party, 350 seamen and Marines with fixed bayonets, dashed forward to occupy a ridgeline only 120 yards from the fort. Although Tilton’s men were still armed with the model 1861 muzzle-loading Springfield rifle musket (in his words “a blasted old ‘Muzzle-Fuzzel’”), they quickly established fire superiority over the fort’s defenders, who were armed with matchlocks, a firearm that had disappeared from Western arsenals 200 years before. “The firing continued for only a few minutes, say four,” Tilton wrote, “amidst the melancholy songs of the enemy, their bearing being courageous in the extreme.”

At 1230 Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey, commanding the Bluejacket battalion, gave the order to charge. “[A]nd as little parties of our forces advanced closer and closer down the deep ravine between us,” Tilton continued, “some of [the Koreans] mounted the parapet and threw stones etc., at us, uttering the while exclamations seemingly of defiance.” The first American into The Citadel, Navy Lieutenant Hugh W. McKee, fell mortally wounded by a musket ball in the groin and a spear thrust in the side. The spearman also stabbed at Lieutenant Commander Winfield Scott Schley, who had followed close behind McKee. The point passed between Schley’s left arm and his chest, pinning his sleeve to his coat, and he shot the man dead.

Tilton was among half a dozen officers who led their men into the fort moments later. The Koreans stood their ground, and the fighting became hand to hand. Clambering over the parapet, Private Michael McNamara encountered an enemy soldier pointing a matchlock at him. He wrenched the gun from the Korean’s hands and clubbed him to death with it. Private James Dougherty closed with and killed the man the Americans identified as the commander of the Korean forces. Tilton, Private Hugh Purvis, and Corporal Charles Brown converged on The Citadel’s principal standard, a 12-foot-square yellow cotton banner emblazoned with black characters signifying “commanding general.” For five minutes the fort’s interior was a scene of desperate combat. Then the remaining defenders fled downhill toward the river, under fire from the Marines, a company of seamen, and the two howitzers that had accompanied the attackers.

A total of 143 Korean dead and wounded were counted in and around the Citadel, and Lieutenant Commander Schley, the landing force’s adjutant, estimated that another 100 had been killed in flight. Forty-seven flags and 481 pieces of ordnance, most quite small but including 27 sizable pieces—20-pounders and upward—were captured. The storming party lost three men killed and ten wounded, with a Marine private in each category. Captain Tilton was pleasantly surprised by his survival. In a letter home a few days later, he wrote, “I never expected to see my wife and baby any more, and if it hadn’t been that the Coreans [sic] can’t shoot true, I never should.” He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1897. Nine sailors and six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor. Among the latter were Corporal Brown and Private Purvis, who had rendezvoused with Tilton at the Citadel’s flagstaff.

The landing force reembarked early the next morning, leaving The Citadel in ruins. “Thus,” wrote Admiral Rodgers, “was a treacherous attack upon our people and an insult to our flag redressed.” Successful as it had been from a military standpoint, however, the operation was not a masterstroke of diplomacy. Subsequent communications with Korean authorities, conducted by messages tied to a pole on an island near the anchorage, were entirely unproductive, and on 3 July the fleet withdrew. A treaty with Korea was not negotiated until 1882.

Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871



American LVTs

The LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked), better known as the Alligator. It was a modification of the original Alligator, a swamp rescue vehicle developed in 1935. The Alligator was an amphibious tank and the star of many U. S. Marine Corps landings in the Pacific. It was propelled by scores of small paddles on it tractor treads. Alligators performed a variety of chores. Some carried infantry, some carried supplies, some acted as light tanks, and others as self-propelled guns. Some were armored, some were equipped with turrets and the 37 mm gun of the M 3 light tank (Stuart tank to the British) , and others carried a 75 mm howitzer. All of them, in spite of the guns and armor, were light enough to float and seaworthy enough to make a sometimes lengthy trip from an anchored troop ship to the beach of a Pacific atoll.


There were two types of amphibious vehicles developed by the Americans in WWII to cross the shoals and beaches in the Pacific theater. One was the personnel carrier, or LVT (landing vehicle, tracked), generally equipped with a ramp in the rear which allowed troops to debark quickly under some cover; and the LVT(A), or armored amphibian, which was actually an amphibious tank. Although their names are similar, the LVT(A)4 was an entirely different machine from the LVT-4 vehicle. The LVT(A)4 was derived from the earlier LVT-2 Amtracs. Production for the new “Amtank” vehicles began in 1944, the LVT(A)4 being born from the US Marines’ urgent request for increased turret firepower from the earlier (A)1’s high velocity 37mm weapon (mounted in a M3 type turret). The result was the substitution of a 75mm howitzer (mounted in a M8 type turret) which considerably improved the potential for enemy bunker busting. But, in order to mount the M8 style turret on the roof of the (A)1, it was necessary to make some modification to the upper hull. These included increasing the size of the turret ring and lengthening the hull rear to provide space for the cramped engine compartment.

The LVT-4 was a natural continuation of the unique US Amtrac series of vehicles that were initially developed down in the Okeechobee marsh area of Florida back in the 1930s by a gentleman by the name of Donald Roebling. Originally built from light-weight aluminum, Mr. Roebling’s Alligator/ Crocodile tracked vehicles could travel equally well on land and water, and therefore caught the attention of the US Navy/Marine Corps as a potential rescue vehicle for downed pilots. After the start of WWII, a contract was awarded to Roebling to build 200 of his vehicles, but this time they were made from steel instead of aluminum. Originally designed to carry cargo, the Army vehicles gradually evolved into an armored fighting vehicle with some of the various types covered over and fitted with gun turrets. Generally called “Amtrac” (armored tractor)- or on occasion “Water Buffalo”- the LVT series of vehicles became very important assault and transport carriers during the island hopping campaigns of the Pacific theater in WWII, and to a lesser extent in Europe. Identifying the vehicles in the LVT series is sometimes difficult, as there were a couple of manufacturers and models of each type. It was the LVT-4 that was the first of the series to have an open cargo bay and a rear ramp for loading/unloading.


The LVT-4 differed from the LVT-2 in having a loading ramp at the rear, which enabled it to carry large loads such as Jeeps and some light weapons. It carried machine-guns on pintles at the front and sides.

These vehicles were very much a compromise design to obtain the best possible performances overland and on water. The two are disparate requirements, but the LVTs achieved a good working compromise and were thus able to carry amphibious warfare from the Rhine to the islands of the Pacific.

LVT-2 and LVT-4

Developed from a civil design intended for use in the Florida swamps, the LVT-1 was not really suited for combat, being intended solely as a supply vehicle. The Pacific war was to prove the need for a more capable amphibious assault vehicle. This emerged as the LVT-2, which used a better all-round shape to improve water performance, though it was still a high and bulky vehicle. Another improvement was a new suspension and the track grousers were made better by the use of aluminium W-shaped shoes that were bolted onto the track and could thus be easily changed when worn or damaged. A definite logistic improvement was introduced by use of the engine, final drive and transmission from the M3 light tank. At the time the LVT-2 was being developed these components were readily available and made spare-part supply that much easier.

The steering system of the LVT-2 gave considerable trouble at first, for the brake drums operated in oil and prolonged use of the steering bars could result in the brakes seizing up on one side. Training and experience solved that problem.

On the LVT-2 the engine was mounted at the rear, which restricted the size of the cargo compartment. This was relatively easily designed out of the overall layout by moving the engine forward and mounting a ramp at the rear to ease loading and unloading. Thus the LVT-2 became the LVT-4, which was otherwise generally similar. Of all the LVT series the LVT-4 was produced in the largest numbers: 8,348 produced on five production lines; in contrast 2,963 LVT-2s were produced on six lines. There were some design differences between the LVT-2 and LVT-4: for instance, the driver’s controls were rearranged on the LVT-4, but the main improvement was that all manner of loads could be carried on the LVT-4, ranging from a Jeep to a 105-mm (4.13-in) field howitzer.

Most LVT-2s and LVT-4s were armed with 12.7- or 7.62-mm (0.5- or 0.3-in) machine-guns on rails or pintles, but there were two versions of the LVT-2 that had heavier weapons. The LVT(A) 1 was an LVT with an M3 light tank turret mounting a 37-mm gun; this was intended to supply fire support during the early phases of an amphibious landing during the interval immediately after reaching the beaches. The gun proved to be too light for this role, so it was later supplanted by the short 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzer mounted in the turret of the M8 Howitzer Motor Carriage to produce the LVT(A) 4. On both of these gun vehicles the turrets were mounted towards the rear of the cargo area, which was covered in by armoured plate.

The ordinary LVT-2s and LVT-4s became the main load carriers of the early Pacific operations. The first LVTs were used in action at Guadalcanal, and thereafter every island-hopping operation involved them. Some were used in Europe during the Scheldt and Rhine operations of 1944-5 and there were numerous odd ‘one-off attempts to mount various types of weapon in them, ranging from rocket batteries to light cannon. Flamethrowers were fitted in some numbers, but all these types of armament should not disguise the fact that the LVT-2 and LVT-4 were most often used to carry ashore the first waves of US Marines.

The Tarawa landings on November 20, 1943, used landing vehicles, tracked (LVTs) for the first time in amphibious warfare. These were true armored amphibians, which could be deployed from landing ships into the water, then driven directly up to the beach and driven well inland, so that troops did not have to wade or walk ashore. Unfortunately, a shortage of LVTs meant that second- wave assault troops had to be carried in conventionally on landing craft. Worse because of faulty calculation of tides, many of the landing craft ran up on coral reefs, obliging the marines to wade long distances ashore. This exposed them to enemy fire and created heavy casualties that greatly imperiled the landings on the first day. Nevertheless, under Maj. Gen. Julian Smith, the 2nd Marine Division managed to occupy positions on the southern shore of the island as well as on the western end, thereby forcing the Japanese garrison to divide. This ultimately proved fatal to the defenders, and although the enemy counterattacked with suicidal banzai charges, the marines held their positions and, by November 23, had overrun the small island.

Specification LVT-2

Crew: 2+7

Powerplant: one Continental W970-9A petrol engine developing186.4KW (250hp)

Weights: unloaded 11000 kg (24,250 lb); loaded 13721 kg (30,250 lb)

Dimensions: length 7.975m(21 ft 6 in); width 3.25m(10ft8in); height 2.5m(8 ft 2.5 in)

Performance: maximum land speed 32km/h(20mph); maximum water speed 12 km/h (7.5 mph); road radius 241 km (150miles); maximum water radius 161km(100miles)

Armament: one 12.7-mm (0.5-in) and one 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns


Bangor-Class Minesweeper (reciprocating engine): A wide minesweeper class-it formed a large part of the Neptune minesweeper strength of 287. Bangor-class ‘sweepers were built in three versions-diesel, turbine, and reciprocating engines. Displacement: 672 tons. Crew: 60. Speed: 16 knots. Armament: 1 x 3-in, 1 x 40-mm, 4 x .303-in mg

RAF Air/Sea Rescue Launch: These boats saved about 13,000 airmen during the war, and were the natural seaborne counterpart to the huge Allied air umbrella which would cover the Neptune operations. Length: 68 feet. Speed: 38 knots. Armament: 3 x .303 Lewis mg

Armed Salvage Tug: Quite apart from the job of moving the huge Mulberry units to the Normandy coast, the fleets of tug-boats had to cope with about half the landing-craft -those unable to cross the Channel under their own power, and which could not be carried on the decks of transports. Displacement: 700 tons. Speed: 13 knots. Crew: 30. Armament: 1 x 3-in, 2 x 20-mm, 2 x .303-in mg

Armed Trawler: Trawlers-with the minesweepers and other light flotilla craft-were to perform invaluable services as convoy escorts shepherding and marshalling the transports. Hundreds of them were pressed into service for this role. Typical specifications were: Displacement: 378 tons. Speed: 11 1/2 knots. Crew: 30. Armament: 1 x 4-in, 3 x 20-mm, 2 x .303 mg; about 20 depth-charges


The ‘Mulberry Harbours’ was a WW2 civil engineering project of immense size and complexity. The floating harbours provided port facilities during the invasion of Normandy from June 1944 until French ports like Cherbourg were captured.

To carry the overall total of 40-50,000 men with their vehicles and equipment, an armada of over 4,000 landing ships, landing-craft, and barges of varying types was required; only about half of these were capable of crossing the Channel under their own power, the remainder having either to be towed or carried aboard the larger ships. When it is remembered that every man and every vehicle had -to be allotted to a specific ship or landing-craft, that every vehicle before embarkation had to be waterproofed, that men and vehicles had to arrive at the right time at the ‘hards’ (improvised landing places) at which their particular landing-craft was beached – the complications of planning and organisation can easily be imagined. Only when all this had been done, did the huge task of the Royal Navy in assembling, marshalling, and shepherding this heterogeneous collection of vessels across the Channel into paths swept through the enemy minefields, in landing them on the correct beaches, and providing the necessary fire support begin.

Apart from the non-combatant ships and landing-craft carrying men, vehicles, and stores, the US Navy and Royal Navy assembled for the escort and support of the operation a fleet of over 1,500 vessels, ranging from battleships to armed landing-craft. They were divided into two ‘task forces’, the Western Task Force from the US Navy supporting the US landing, and the Eastern Task Force, provided primarily by the Royal Navy, supporting the British/ Canadian landing. Each task force was further sub-divided into ‘forces’, one to each beach, responsible for escorting the assaulting force concerned, positioning it correctly, and providing fire support for the landing. The assault looked primarily to naval gunfire to silence the German coastal batteries and strongpoints.

The magnitude of the naval effort can be judged by the fact that the forces included seven battleships, 23 cruisers, 148 destroyers, as well as a swarm of smaller vessels -sloops, frigates, trawlers, corvettes, patrol craft and minesweepers. In addition, a fleet of 350 specially designed landing-craft carrying guns, rockets, anti-aircraft guns, and machine-guns was assembled for the close support of the actual assault.

The air effort in direct support of the assault was on a similar immense scale. It comprised the most modern types of aircraft available at the period, primarily the Spitfire, Mustang, Typhoon, Lightning, and Thunderbolt.

The exact timing of the assault proved a most complex problem which had its repercussions upon the dates on which the operation could be launched.

Although from the point of view of the assaulting troops there was much to be said for an assault in darkness, both the navies and air forces had to have daylight to carry out their bombardment tasks, and darkness would dangerously increase the likelihood of troops being landed in the wrong place. To assist navigation and for the airborne landings, moonlight was essential. Finally, the German underwater beach obstacles meant that landing must begin three to four hours before high tide. The only suitable periods for the operation therefore were those when there was four to five hours’ daylight between dawn and high tide and at the same time good moonlight was available. All these conditions could only be satisfied on approximately three days in each lunar month.

However powerful and successful the assault, it would clearly be valueless unless the forces ashore could be built up more rapidly than those of the enemy and properly maintained when there. This involved three problems: the planning, escorting, and routing of the follow-up convoys; ensuring that those convoys contained the right personnel, vehicles, and equipment arriving in the right order; and finally ensuring that they could be rapidly unloaded on arrival.

Fifteen personnel ships, 74 ocean-going merchant ships, and more than 200 coasters were loaded before D-Day and these were to form the first wave of the build-up; the requirement thereafter was for eight convoys a day. Once having got the assault force across, however, movement of these convoys was not likely to present any particular problem for the Allied navies.

The question of what they should contain after the initial preplanned flight was more difficult, and a special organisation known as ‘Build-Up Control'(BUCO) was set up in Southampton to ensure that what was shipped across the Channel was geared to the requirements of the battle.

The question of rapid unloading initially appeared the most difficult of all; it could clearly not be done across the beaches as a long-term measure and the likelihood of capturing port facilities intact appeared small, at any rate in the early stages. The problem was solved by perhaps the most famous devices of the entire operation-the artificial harbours known as ‘Mulberries’. They owed their existence primarily to the foresight of Churchill himself, who had directed their development as early as 1942, with his oft-quoted minute: ‘They must float up and down with the tide. . . . Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’ They consisted of an outer breakwater formed partly of sunken blockships and partly of concrete ‘caissons’, 200 feet long, which had to be towed across the Channel; in the area of sheltered water so created were floating piers adapted to take coasters, landing ships or barges; unloading was further assisted by a fleet of amphibious lorries known as DUKWs. The success of the system may be judged by the fact that shortly after the assault, an average of 6,500 vehicles and nearly 40,000 tons of stores was being landed weekly.

The supply of motor and aircraft fuel presented a particular problem. Initially tankers were moored offshore and the fuel fed by buoyed pipeline into depots on land. Preparations were made, however, for an underwater pipeline direct from England to the French coast-PLUTO, or ‘Pipe-Line-Under-the-Ocean’-and eventually, though not in the early stages, fuel supply was in effect drawn direct from England.

The impression so far given may well be that this was an exclusively British/American/Canadian operation, but the contributions of the other Allies must not be forgotten. The French, for instance, provided two cruisers, one destroyer, one armoured division, and four squadrons of aircraft; the Belgians one brigade and two squadrons; the Dutch two gunboats, one brigade, and two squadrons; the Poles one cruiser, two destroyers, one armoured division, and nine squadrons; the Norwegians three destroyers and four squadrons; the Czechs three squadrons; the Australians five squadrons; and the New Zealanders five squadrons. Practically every occupied country of Europe was represented in one way or another.

Finally, it must not be forgotten that the invading forces could expect assistance from an ally inside France. In this context the French resisters deserve to be included in the catalogue of forces available to the Allies. SOE had been its best to organise and arm them and from early 1943 German demands for labour had assisted recruiting; by 1944 some 100,000 young men had taken to the ‘Maquis’. The vast majority of the resisters’ plans were, of course, geared to the great day when the Allies would land in France once more; in 1943 they had put forward a series of seven ambitious plans to deal with railways, road movement, telecommunications, ammunition dumps, oil fuel installations, headquarters, and railway turntables. By the beginning of 1944, however, many resistance networks had been broken up by the Gestapo and only the railway demolition plan appeared to be capable of any certain implementation. Nevertheless both numbers available and arms supplied were considerable: by May 1944 80,000 Sten-guns, 30,000 pistols, 17,000 rifles, and nearly 3,500 Bren-guns had been parachuted into France; overall there were probably some 100,000 men plus another 35- 40,000 in the Maquis who had a weapon of some sort.

To assist the Resistance and ensure that as far as possible its operations were co-ordinated with those of the Allies, SOE prepared a number of three-man teams (American/British/French) to be parachuted-in uniform -into areas where resistance was expected to flourish, so as to act as liaison between the resisters and the regular forces. In addition the British Special Air Service and the American Operational Groups were entrusted with various raiding and harassing operations for which it was hoped that they could obtain the assistance and support of the Resistance.

Finally, preparations had to be made to take over and run civil affairs in the liberated areas of France pending recognition of a French government. Here also assistance from the Resistance organisation was hoped for.

So the balance sheet of this immense operation shows the following staggering figures:

  • 50,000 men in the assault drawn from five divisions;
  • Over 2,000,000 men to be shipped to France overall, comprising’ a total of 39 divisions;
  • 138 major warships used in the assault, together with 221 smaller combat vessels (destroyer category and below);
  • Over 1,000 minesweepers and auxiliary vessels;
  • 4,000 landing ships or craft;
  • 805 merchant ships;
  • 59 blockships;
  • 300 miscellaneous small craft;
  • 11,000 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, transports, and gliders;
  • Over 100,000 partially armed men of the Resistance ready to lend such support as they could.

With such a weight of numbers and material it might well be thought that the assault would be practically irresistible, but two factors must be remembered: first, the hazards and extreme complexity of an amphibious operation of this magnitude, for which there was no precedent; all the most meticulous arrangements could be upset and the utmost confusion caused by some chance occurrence or unpredicted change in the weather: second, the great inherent superiority of the defence over the attack in an amphibious operation, especially against prepared coastal defences; however great the Allied superiority, there could be no certainty that the force would succeed even in securing a foothold. Surprise and deception were the essence of the operation-and complete surprise there could not be, for the Germans knew that the invasion was coming; all they did not know was when and where.

Finally, it was clear to both sides that this was the decisive operation of the war. If the landing succeeded, Germany must eventually be crushed sooner or later between the advancing forces of the Russians and the Allies. Should the landing fail, the Allies might well take years to recover from their losses in men, material, and morale; the peoples of Occupied Europe would give up hope and Germany would be left free to turn and square the account with the Russians.

The broad shoulders of General Eisenhower carried an immense burden.

‘X Lighters’

A number [100] of large purpose-built `X Lighters’ had been developed by the Navy in the First World War and these contributed to the landings at Suvla Bay in 1915.

Although something of a military sideshow, the campaign at Gallipoli also made a contribution to the acceptance of the internal combustion engine for marine use. Anticipating the need to land troops and equipment on beaches here and elsewhere, the British Admiralty ordered large numbers of small landing craft. To ensure a shallow draught, these X-lighters were fitted with lightweight motors, many being hot-bulb engines. After the war, these X-lighters were sold off and many were converted for commercial use, giving some British coastal shipowners their first experience of the motor vessel.

The search for a more suitable landing craft continued after the war and this requirement was consistently emphasised in exercise reports. In the 1920s an inter-service Landing Craft Committee was established to study the design and number of craft required to conduct a landing on a hostile shore. Their first attempt at a landing craft was the Motor Landing Craft (MLC(1)) completed in 1926. This craft was not a success and was followed in 1928 by the MLC(10). The MLC(10) was a flat-bottomed craft powered by a water jet. It could embark 100 troops or a 12-ton tank, discharging them directly onto the beach via a steep bow ramp. The water jet gave it a relatively slow speed of only 5 knots and the boat’s flat bottom and bow ramp made it rather unseaworthy, handicaps that are common in modern amphibious craft. By 1934 the MLC had been thoroughly tested in a series of exercises and the design proved satisfactory. Two more vessels were procured and these were joined by six more, ordered as a result of the 1936 Abyssinian crisis.

X-Lighters in WWI and at Gallipoli

X Lighters

Displacement 200 tons
 Dimensions  105ft 6″ x 21 x 7ft 6″
 Guns Unarmed (The crew may have had side arms for self-defence or covering fire on the beaches)
 Machinery  steam or diesel engines, speed 8 kts
 Crew  4
 Builders  various
 Laid Down  1915
 Completed  1915- 18

The Bombing of the Sir Galahad

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.

San Carlos Waters I

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.

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.