|HMS Ardent after being hit|
30 years ago today the British commenced Operation Sutton, the landing of troops to retake the Falkland Islands, seized by Argentina seven weeks earlier. That the British were able to organize and execute such an operation over such an enormous distance and on such short notice is a testimony to the professionalism of their military. It’s probable that the only other country capable of doing something like this is the United States – and possibly France.
The British plan was to land a brigade’s worth of troops in the protected anchorage of San Carlos Bay, which lies between West and East Falkland Islands. After securing a beached the British would move across East Falkland Island to capture Port Stanley and end the war.
While the Argentinean Navy had been neutralized in the wake of the Belgrano sinking and the Argentine Army had little ability to interfere with the British landings, their air force and naval aviation were a significant threat and wasted no time in reacting vigorously to the British landing. The first British troops came ashore about 4 a.m. and by dawn the landing ships were already being attacked by light aircraft based in the Falklands.
The most significant air attacks, however, came from the mainland, arriving in three waves.
The first wave, eight Daggers and six A-4 Skyhawks arriving around 10:30 a.m., damaged the frigates Argonaut and Antrim. In both cases the ships were hit by bombs which did not explode, but still caused important damage to the ships. Apparently the Argentine planes attacked at such a low altitude that the bombs didn’t have time to arm properly. The frigates Brilliant and Broadsword were also damaged less seriously by cannon fire.
The second wave of 14 Skyhawks, which came in around 1 p.m., didn’t actually succeed in making it to the anchorage. Eight of the planes aborted due to weather or mechanical problems and the other six were intercepted by Sea Harriers which shot down two and damaged a third.
The third wave, 11 daggers and six Skyhawks, succeed in landing several hits on the frigate HMS Ardent, sinking her.
While the Argentine airmen were valorous and did significant damage to the British force, including sinking one ship, the cost was heavy, with five Daggers and five Skyhawks from the mainland shot down. Four of the Daggers were brought down by Sidewinder missiles from Sea Harriers, while the fifth was shot down by a missile from one of the frigates. All five of the Skyhawks lost were downed by Sea Harriers as well. The Argentines also lost four other aircraft that day, and the British two.
As I recall, the intensity of the air-naval battle caught the world by surprise and was a sobering lesson in how bloody modern warfare can be when waged full-out between first-class opponents. Most warfare in the last five decades and been either between third world combatants or between a first world military and third world or non-state actors. In either case, the public in first world countries is not prepared for the kinds of losses that are likely if there’s a future high-intensity conflict between capable modern militaries. It’s quite possible that the casualty toll for a United States war with China over a Taiwan, for example, would exceed the total losses of both Iraq Wars and Afghanistan within hours.
By the evening of May 21st, both sides knew they were in for a tough and costly fight, although the most important fact was that the British were firmly established ashore and the Argentine air attacks, while damaging, had not been severe enough to threaten the landing. At a 10 to one ratio of bombers lost to warships sunk, the Argentineans would run out of planes before the British ran out of ships. Tactics would need to be adjusted.