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The Falklands Conflict 1982

A Sea Harrier from 801 NAS returns to HMS Invincible during the Falklands Conflict
HMS Invincible at anchor off Port Stanley before leaving the Falkland Islands to return to the UK

In 1982 the Royal Navy played the leading role in a remarkable war in which a carrier and amphibious task force supported by nuclear submarines and Royal Air Force aircraft, landed 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and the Army's 5 Brigade in a major joint operation to liberate the remote Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic that had been invaded and captured by Argentina.

On 2 April 1982, the day of the invasion, destroyers and frigates exercising off Gibraltar under Rear Admiral 'Sandy' Woodward were ordered south. They were joined by the carriers Hermes and Invincible, loaded with Sea Harrier fighters as well as amphibious ships and merchant ships were taken up from the trade for use as troopships. These were also three nuclear powered submarines to cover the surface ships. In overall command was Commander-in-Chief Fleet, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse at his headquarters at Northwood near London. Woodward commanded the carrier task group while Commodore Mike Clapp was in charge of the amphibious ships.

First the island of South Georgia was recaptured in operations that included helicopters sinking an Argentine submarine, Santa Fe. As he neared the Falklands Woodward felt vulnerable to the threat of Argentine aircraft, both carrier and land based, missile armed surface ships and submarines. His concerns led to approval being given to sink any Argentine warships outside Argentine territorial waters; HMS Conqueror was at the time in touch with the cruiser General Belgrano which was duly sunk. This ended the threat of the Argentine carrier and surface ships, which took refuge in coastal waters. Argentine submarines were ineffective due to torpedo problems and effective British anti-submarine warfare.

The task of denying the British their chance of landing fell to the aircraft of the Argentine Air Force and the Argentine Navy flying from land bases. Because of tactical mishandling, on 4 May, the destroyer HMS Sheffield was hit by an air launched Exocet missile, caught fire and had to be abandoned. Despite this setback, however, the Sea Harriers, armed with effective AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles inflicted such losses on the Argentines that their air attacks failed to stop the landings.

The amphibious ships were effectively covered by the guns and missiles of the destroyers and escorts shared between Woodward's and Clapp's task groups. The air defences of the Task Group were such that the Argentines often dropped bombs too low to explode. Fighting was serious and the frigates Ardent and Antelope and the destroyer Coventry were sunk by bombs that did explode; other ships had narrow escapes. Several ships were saved by the remarkable bravery of the Royal Naval Divers, in particular, acting as bomb disposal teams. 

Perhaps the major setback was the loss of vital helicopters on the transport Atlantic Conveyor, onto which the fleet's effective decoy rockets diverted two Exocet missiles. This created transport difficulties that led to shipping being used to assist in troops crossing East Falkland; two landing ships logistic were bombed at Port Pleasant in these operations and one, Sir Galahad was lost. As the ground assault began on Port Stanley, the Falklands capital, with Royal Marine Commandos in a leading role, naval gunfire and RAF Harriers brought down as reinforcements gave support. In reply the Argentines damaged the destroyer Glamorgan with a shore based Exocet, but she was soon operational once more. The Argentines, outfought and demoralised, surrendered on 14 June.

Operation 'Corporate', as it was called officially, had been a remarkable feat of maritime power projection. Two brigades of troops had been transported 8,000 miles and one of the most successful amphibious landings in history was conducted in San Carlos Water on 21 May when 3,000 troops were put ashore without casualties to the landing force.

The twenty Sea Harriers from Hermes and Invincible inflicted serious losses on the Argentine air force destroying 23 aircraft in air-to-air combat for the loss of none of their own number. A further 17 enemy aircraft were destroyed by the Task Group's missile and gun air defences. Destroyers and frigates fired 7,500 rounds against Argentine positions and provided valuable support for the troops ashore. The presence of nuclear submarines forced the Argentine fleet to withdraw, while the frigate Alacrity destroyed an Argentine supply ship in Falkland Sound on 11 May. It was a fine demonstration of the continued strength and reach of British maritime power at a time when its future was in some doubt.

Further reading:

  • D. Brown, The Royal Navy and the Falklands War (London, 1987).
  • M. Clapp and E. Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands: The Battle of San Carlos Water (London, 1996).
  • Admiral S. Woodward with P.Robinson, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (London, 1992).