Friday, May 04, 2012

Falklands+30: Argentina Avenges the Belgrano

We pick up the story of the 1982 Falklands War on May 4, two days after the submarine HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano. Pre-dawn on the 4th, another Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan from Ascension Island attacked the airfield at Port Stanley on East Falkland. Three of the British fleet's Sea Harriers launched a strike against Argentine positions near Goose Green. Unfortunately, one of the three was shot down. The British only had 20 Sea Harriers - five percent of the task force's air cover was gone.

In 1982, the primary surface-to-surface weapon of the Royal Navy was the French-made Exocet sea-skimming cruise missile. As they prepared to sail south from the UK in April 1982, the British captains conferred about the Argentinians' capabilities. They too were armed with Exocet. Captain Jeremy Black of HMS Invincible said right out, "Exocet v. Exocet. Hmm. That's not nice."

Another problem that plagued the British was that they had no airborne early warning (AEW) radar capability with the task force. The best antiaircraft platforms the British had were their Type 42 destroyers. These ships frequently sailed independently on radar picket duty without supporting ships early in the fighting. HMS Sheffield (D80) was the lead ship of the Type 42 class. She was commissioned by the Royal Navy in February 1975. The Type 42's main armament was the Sea Dart surface-to-air missile. Sea Dart was a highly effective weapon against high-flying, fast targets - i.e. the Soviet attackers the Royal Navy was intended to fight in the North Atlantic.

It wasn't likely the Argentinians would be so obliging to open themselves up to Sea Dart's strength in the South Atlantic especially since, like Exocet, they had the same weapon.

As professional military forces are apt to do, the Royal Navy thought their training, tactics, and assumptions honed for NATO would apply to this conflict. The British sailors had been trained to expect at least 20 minutes warning between detecting a potential attacker and the impact of any weapon it would fire. They assumed that the Argentinians would use the same Exocet tactics as they themselves would: an air launch would take place from medium altitude and close to the Exocet's maximum range of around 45 miles. They couldn't have been more wrong.

Just before 1000 hours on May 4, Sheffield's radar picked up an incoming aircraft at low altitude. They didn't know whether or not it was one of the task force's Sea Harriers or if it could be an Argentine plane on a bombing run. From Sheffield's bridge the two officers on watch saw a smoke trail on the horizon. It was just two and a half minutes after the plane was detected on radar that the two officers realized what was hurtling towards their ship.
My God, it's a missile.
A blink of an eye later, the Exocet plowed into Sheffield's port side traveling almost 700 mph. It had been launched from just six miles away. There is some debate as to whether or not the missile's warhead detonated, but the damage was done. Watertight doors were ripped away, power was lost, and the ship began to both flood and burn.

The Exocet impact also severed Sheffield's fire main. That, combined with the thick, poisonous smoke from burning plastic and metal made damage control nearly impossible. The British sailors did everything they could, and several of Sheffield's fellow ships came to her aid. The men standing on Sheffield's deck could feel the heat from the fires below. Her commander, Captain Sam Salt, reluctantly ordered the destroyer abandoned so the other ships could disperse and protect themselves. Twenty of Sheffield's 287-man crew lost their lives.

Sheffield didn't go down easily. She remained afloat until May 10 when, under tow by another British warship attempting to salvage her, flooding took over and she slipped beneath the waves.

Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward's task force was stunned by the loss. Here was a modern, top-of-the-line surface combatant designed specifically for air defense destroyed by a anti-ship missile that cost about $500,000. The British did a quick reexamination of their tactics. First, they decided that they couldn't risk the task force close inshore because their radars and anti-air weapons couldn't pick up enemy aircraft soon enough. Second, they would assume that every incoming attack was a potential missile threat and take defensive action. Sheffield hadn't even fired chaff or missile decoys because they just didn't think they were at risk.

Compared to the loss of the Belgrano to Argentina, the sinking of Sheffield was minor with respect to loss of life. It was a wake-up call for the British that they were actually in a shooting war, and that the Argentine enemy was formidable and would defend their conquest.

Rear Admiral Woodward rallied his sailors in the wake of Sheffield's sinking in a signal to all the ships of the task force:
We shall lose more ships and more men. But we shall win.
To be continued...

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