The Royal Navy and the Battle of San Carlos 21-25 May 1982: The Wrong Enemy in the Wrong Place

31 years ago, the Royal Navy was coming to the end of a pitched battle against the air assets of the Argentine Air Force and Navy in the Battle of San Carlos. They had been heavily engaged while supporting Operation Sutton, the amphibious landings to recapture the Falklands. Nicknamed “Bomb Alley” by the soldiers, the fighting in San Carlos Water highlighted the Royal Navy’s lack of flexibility, and was very much a case of fighting the wrong enemy, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place.

In fighting more akin to that which had taken place off Crete and Okinawa 40 years earlier, the Royal Navy was shown to be functionally underequipped and unsuited for such operations, despite the skill and commitment of its sailors.

Why was this the case? There are several reasons. The first is that the Royal Navy, as a result of extensive cuts since the end of the Second World War, had become a predominately anti-submarine force. The surface fleet had been shaped and designed for operations based around patrolling the North Atlantic whilst also providing escort duty for US Navy battle groups, and dealing with high-flying Russian bombers, along with minesweeping and other blue water roles.

This functional role had an impact on defensive armament. Missile systems that tracked high-flying bombers, such as Sea Slug, Sea Wolf or Sea Dart, were introduced as primary defensive systems, with the idea being that the ships could track air assets from long distances and lock on before firing. Even the air defence ships, the Type 42s, were unable to operate as effectively as hoped. San Carlos was the first time in history that a modern surface fleet armed with surface-to-air missiles defended itself against full-scale air strikes, and so it is understandable that there were problems with the technology and tactics.

However, when faced with repeated waves of low-level, close in aerial attacks, such systems could simply not cope. This meant that many of the ships that sailed south in 1982 did so with only hastily added close-in defences, such as General Purpose Machine Guns that were mounted on the bridge wings and operated by men of the Royal Marine detachments aboard. Other ships had quickly taken Bofors or Oerlikon guns from storage and mounted them. When the Argentine aircraft penetrated this now ineffective defensive screen, the thin-hulled ships were incredibly exposed to their low-tech iron bombs which caused considerable damage. HMS Coventry, for example, was struck by three 1,000lb bombs on 25th May, and within twenty minutes was upside down, ‘her keel horizontal a few feet above the sea.’ One Electronic Warfare Officer aboard Coventry recalled that his role was rendered virtually useless by this low-tech assault: ‘Anti-ship missile defence is what I was trained to do against the Soviets. So whilst the procedures are sound, the weapons we were now expecting weren’t things we trained against. We were back against iron bombs; there’s no radar on those, so there’s no electronic warfare detection of those.’ Had the Argentines set their fuses accordingly, the losses would have been far higher; British ships were struck by thirteen bombs that failed to explode.

The Royal Navy was also hampered by ship design in this era. Whereas previous generations of warship had been designed to be able to survive a great number of hits from the big guns of battleships, or fitted with armoured decks to resist air attack, many of the ships sent south in 1982 were thin-hulled. The Falklands War revealed that ships constructed principally of aluminium, and filled with flammable materials such as electronic cables and wiring, were no longer able to withstand a multitude of hits, but were far more vulnerable. HMS Sheffield, for example was crippled and had to be abandoned after being struck by an Exocet missile that did not even explode on 4th May.

Soviet-centric strategic thinking in Whitehall had also led to a lack of Airborne Early Warning and a reduced fix wing aerial capability. The two carriers sent south, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, were too small to launch AEW aircraft, and could only carry a small number of Sea Harrier and GR3 Harriers in comparison to their larger predecessors, such as HMS Ark Royal. Decommissioned in 1979, she had also been able to launch Phantom and Buccaneer aircraft via a catapult system, larger aircraft that could remain airborne for longer in comparison to the smaller Sea Harrier. As a consequence, the fleet sent south in 1982 had less time to prepare for attacks as they were deprived of eyes in the sky, which the Argentines exploited to drop into the channel of San Carlos Water before missile systems could lock on. The Royal Navy also had less air cover due to an inability of the Sea Harrier to maintain an effective combat air patrol.

The Royal Navy engaged in tough fighting against the brave Argentine pilots, and showed excellent adaptability in finding solutions to ongoing problems. However, many sailors were killed and both HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope were lost in Bomb Alley what was a risky gamble from the British government, with mnay other ships suffering severe damage. MV Atlantic Conveyor, and its precious cargo of Chinook helicopters, was also lost to an Exocet attack, which prolonged the ground campaign. There was no margin for error, and had more ships been lost, particularly one of the carriers, it would not only have led to the failure of the landings, but also had severe consequences on Britain’s NATO commitments in the Northern Hemisphere.

The impact of Bomb Alley and the Falklands campaign on a whole cannot be understated. Despite the leaning trend for missile systems that had taken place in the preceding years, following the conflict most warships from navies around the world were retrofitted with close-in weapon systems and guns for self-defence as extra safe-guards and to ensure greater defensive flexibility.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Royal Navy and the Battle of San Carlos 21-25 May 1982: The Wrong Enemy in the Wrong Place

  1. Is it true that Hermes could not have launched (AEW) Gannets? Or just the fact that there were none in service, having been retired less than four years before the conflict

    • Thanks for commenting. I think the answer is a combination of the two. The only fixed wing aircraft capable of launching from Hermes’ deck due to its size was the Sea Harrier. The Gannet had been retired when the last carrier capable of launching it had been scrapped.

      Defensive strategy in the years prior to 1982 had increasingly taken the role of AEW away from the Royal Navy and handed it to the RAF, again under the assumption that it would only be required in the North Atlantic or over Europe, which could all be served by mainland bases. Due to distance from the nearest airfield at Ascension, however, the RAF could not provide the Royal Navy with this in the Falklands, depriving them of a necessity of modern war, as I wrote above.

      • The Hermes would have operated Gannets before her catapaults and arrestor gear were removed when she was converted to the Commando Carrier role in the early 1970’s.
        In about 1980/81 she was refited as a “Harrier Carrier” this involved fitting a ski Jump ramp at the bows.

  2. JASON MICHAEL HESSON

    Fantastic article. As a person who is into his military weapons and history could i play devils advocate and ask you about the tactics of the Battle of San Carlos.

    Would it have been better for Sandy Woodward to put his 2 carriers actually inside San Carlos with the landing ships etc, then put the screening forces, Destroyers, Frigates in Falkland Sound thus allowing the Harrier force to gain extra range and altitude to sanitize the airspace overhead.

    It would have been extremely risky as i know and could have resulted in the loss of one of the carriers but with the Harriers having something in the order of 80% to 90% success rate against the FAA when intercepting their attacks, wouldn’t it been more desirable to do this than what actually transpired.

    Given that the FAA flew in the region of 40 or so sorties on the 21st alone, ‘splashing’ 32 to 36 aircraft would have been demoralizing for the opposition and would have saved around 40 or so lives in the landings up to the 25th.

    With that loss ratio every day, the FAA would have to simply give up and as such the British losses on the 25th May and the 8th of June wouldn’t have happened.

    Yours faithfully

    Mr Jason M Hesson

    • Hi Jason,

      Woodward would never have placed his carriers inside Falkland Sound and San Carlos. The area was in fact extremely vulnerable as the Argentines were able to drop in quickly before defensive weapons could lock on. While short on time, the carriers would have been obvious targets that would have acted like magnets for the Argentine Air Force and naval fighters to attack. I certainly would never criticise Woodward for not doing this, as it would have been operational suicide.

      Woodward has attracted criticism for his cautious deployment of the carrier assets, and some have stated that he reduced the SHAR’s effectiveness by forcing to fly from too far away. This is perhaps true, but without any suitable AEW or idea of the location of the Venticenco de Mayo, the Argentine carrier capable of launching Super Es with Exocets, cautiousness was almost certainly the best approach.

  3. Mr Jason M Hesson

    Thanks for your reply.

    It was easy for me to be an Armchair General on an end of computer than actually be in Woodward’s shoes, 8,000 or so miles away with the lives of 30,000 or more personnel weighing on his shoulders. I don’t envy him in the slightest.

    Two books which gave me the idea for the above question were THE RAZOR’S EDGE by Hugh Bicheno and THE ROYAL NAVY & THE FALKLANDS WAR by David Brown. Both books are highly recommended for yourself and your readership and cover everything you discussed in your article plus much more.

    Yours faithfully

    Mr Jason M Hesson

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