18. The role of the Sea Harriers during the Falklands War
The Sea Harrier was tasked with providing aerial defense of the British task force and performed air-to-ground support of the British troops, though primary aerial support of ground forces came from helicopters. 28 Sea Harriers operated from HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. In addition, there were 14 Harrier GR3 attack aircraft. The Sea Harriers from the British ships shot down 28% of the Argentine aircraft lost during the conflict without the loss of a single aircraft in air-to-air combat. There were six Sea Harriers lost during the war, two shot down by anti-aircraft fire and four were reported lost to accidents. The performance of the Sea Harriers was a substantial contribution to the British victory.
The British stationed the aircraft carriers outside of Exocet range, limiting the time the Sea Harriers could spend in the combat zone, since they had to expend so much fuel to reach the area. Even so, they were capable of remaining in assigned positions for up to half and hour while the Argentine strike fighters were limited to less than ten minutes, having flown from distant bases to reach the islands. Despite the effectiveness of the Sea Harriers, the Argentine Air Force continued to fly nightly resupply missions to Port Stanley’s airfield, using C-130 cargo planes, throughout the conflict.
In early June British plans for the assault on Port Stanley suffered a setback. Two ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were attacked by Argentine A-4 Skyhawks. The ships were preparing to offload troops of the Welsh Guards when they were hit by bombs which set them afire. The fires on Sir Galahad were out of control and it was ordered abandoned. The ship’s Royal Marines detachment organized and carried out the evacuation of the Army troops, using helicopters to lift them clear of the ship, and launching life rafts from the vessel’s bow. The evacuation of the burning ship was recorded by BBC cameras and broadcast throughout the world.
Sir Tristram was strafed and bombed; the five hundred pound bomb failed to explode. The troops and some of the crew nonetheless evacuated the ship. The Marines who supported the removal of unexploded ordnance were at the time occupied with the evacuation of Sir Galahad. Later in the afternoon the bomb exploded, severely damaging the ship and causing it to be abandoned. The ship was rebuilt in 1983. Sir Galahad was towed out to sea using a tug during the third week of June and sunk by HMS Onyx. Thirty-two Welsh Guards were killed in the attacks and over 150 were severely burned or sustained other injuries.
20. The Welsh Guards were aboard the ships because of an earlier failed operation
On June 2, a detachment from 2 Para advanced inland to Fitzroy and Bluff Cove. Their move was done without authorization from operation planners, and dictated heavier troops be sent to support them. Half of the Welsh Guards were detached to move overland to their support, a distance of approximately thirty miles. The Guards were sent forward light, that is, without their heavy equipment. They refused and attempted to complete the march carrying all of their heavy weapons. When that failed, they returned to San Carlos and were transferred to the fleet auxiliaries which transferred them to Point Pleasant, seven miles from Bluff Cove.
Arguments between senior officers led to delays in offloading the troops. The senior Guards officer insisted on the troops being carried by water the remaining distance to Bluff Cove. An order to offload the troops immediately was issued and ignored. The argument among senior officers delayed the offloading, despite their being warned that the ship on which they stood was vulnerable to enemy air attacks. The argument and the delay it caused led to the men remaining aboard when the Argentine air strikes hit both ships. It further delayed the assault on Port Stanley by two days. The images of the disaster broadcast by the BBC had a sobering effect on the British public at home.
21. Port Stanley was surrounded with heavily fortified positions
The hills which surrounded Port Stanley were heavily defended. The Argentines were subjected to aerial and naval bombardment as the ground troops maneuvered into position. On June 11, the British launched their attacks on Argentine positions, striking at night. Argentine resistance was strong, though British troops advanced steadily, though attacks led to several “friendly fire” incidents as they pressed forward. On the morning of June 12, as the ground fighting continued, Argentine technicians used an improvised launcher to damage yet another British destroyer, HMS Glamorgan. The launcher had been developed and the missile reprogrammed in Argentina and delivered to Port Stanley by the nightly C-130 supply mission.
The Argentines had three available Exocet missiles, the first of which failed to launch. The second failed to lock onto the target and fell harmlessly to the sea. The third found the target, hit the ship near the stern, and penetrated into the hangar deck, where it exploded. It destroyed the ship’s helicopter in the hangar and started a massive fire. Fourteen crew were killed by the explosion and fire. It was the last Exocet to strike a British ship during the war. The crew was able to contain, and then extinguish the fire and the ship was underway, partially operational, later in the morning. Glamorgan returned to Britain after the war and underwent extensive repair and refit in Portsmouth.
The British cracked the defenses surrounding Stanley on June 13, and the Argentine forces which remained took up positions in the town proper. Neither side relished the idea of urban combat, which would have undoubtedly caused civilian casualties, which both sides had tried to avoid during the conflict. Early on June 14 the contending armies agreed to a ceasefire. The Argentine garrison agreed to surrender, and did so that afternoon. Six days later the British accepted the surrender of the Argentine garrison at Corbeta Uruguay, which controlled the South Sandwich Islands. Following that surrender the British declared hostilities to be at an end.
The Welsh Guards sustained the most fatalities suffered by a unit of the ground troops during the war – 33. Of those, 32 died during the attack and evacuation on Sir Galahad. The Royal Navy’s largest single loss was the 22 killed aboard HMS Ardent. In total 255 British servicemen died in the war, and 777 were wounded or injured in accidents. The Argentine dead was totaled at 649, including 16 civilians. The British suffered civilian casualties as well. Three Falkland Islanders were killed by friendly (British) fire. The Argentines sustained 1177 non-fatal casualties throughout the conflict.
23. The Falklands War boosted the Conservative Party in Great Britain
The end of the war and the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands by the British created a surge of patriotism in Great Britain. Proposed cuts to the British Navy were abandoned. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a period of increased popularity. The Conservative Party increased its majority in Parliament in the ensuing general election. The opposite effect was felt in Argentina.Loss of the Falklands (called Malvinas in Argentina) led to protests and demonstrations against the ruling military junta. Argentina restored a democratic government in 1983. Diplomatic relations between the two nations weren’t restored until 1989, and neither side changed its position over sovereignty of the islands.
The war remains one of interest to military planners. Although the casualty numbers seem low at first glance, as a percentage of the total number involved, they were high. The vulnerability of ships to anti-ship missiles startled the navies of the world, and defensive systems against them were improved, with newer systems developed. Argentina continued to claim sovereignty over the islands into the 21st century. It retains the claim today, though in 2009 the British Government announced there would be no further discussions of the matter. Of the 229 world economies ranked by the CIA in 2010, the Falkland Islands were listed at 222. Perhaps that’s why Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described the Falklands War as “two bald men fighting over a comb”.
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