Six Better Fuses

During the night of the 21st of May, the British Amphibious Task Group landed troops at San Carlos Water in an operation that has been described as the one of the most successful amphibious landings in history. This area, known as Bomb Alley by the British troops, became the target for repeated air attacks by low flying Argentine jets. Now with British forces on the ground, the Argentine air force began night attacks by Canberra bombers which continued throughout the rest of the war.

The frigate HMS Ardent with the destroyer Yarmouth, both supporting the landings, was bombarding the Argentine airstrip at Goose Green when she came under attack from a Skyhawk who dropped two bombs, both of which failed to explode. The two ships were ordered to the Northwest to “split air attacks from the south” when a group of three Skyhawks flew in from the west, over the island and attacked from the Northeast with cannon fire and bombs. The ship’s Seacat missiles failed to lock on to the attackers who flew in at an angle that was also beyond the arc of the 4.5 inch gun , leaving only the 20mm cannon to retaliate. Three bombs struck Ardent; two exploding in the hangar deck and the third crashed through the aft auxiliary machine room, but failed to explode. With the hangar area in flames and virtually defenceless, but with the ship still under control she was ordered to retreat North, but at 18.00 hours, five Skyhawks found her and dropped a number of free fall and retard bombs, some exploding in the port quarter, while some others hit the ship but failed to detonate. These bombs, together with others that exploded in the water nearby, battered Ardent causing many casualties among the damage control teams. With fires now out of control, the ship was abandoned and burned throughout the night until she finally sank at 6.30 the next morning. 22 crew died in the attacks.

The task force continued to be attacked and now it was the turn of the frigate Argonaut, who in concert with other warships was protecting the San Carlos Water landing. An Aeromachi MB-339 caused some damage including to her radar. A second attack by Skyhawks scored two hits, but again, neither exploded. HMS Plymouth came to Argonaut’s rescue and towed her out of danger. The two bombs were successfully deactivated.

On the 23rd of May, the frigate Antelope was stationed as air defence at the entrance to San Carlos Water when she came under attack from four A4 Skyhawks. The ship was hit by one 1,000 bomb on the starboard side, but the bomb failed to explode and the aircraft was damaged by small arms fire. A second Skyhawk attacked and was damaged by 20mm cannon fire, causing it to crash through the mainmast, killing the pilot. His bomb penetrated the hull but again failed to explode. The ship moved to more sheltered waters and EOD specialists from the Royal Engineers came aboard to try and defuse the bombs. During the attempt, one bomb exploded and killed Staff Sergeant Prescott and severely injured the other members of the EOD team. The ship was ripped apart from the waterline upwards, starting major fires and the order was given to abandon ship. Shortly after the last man had left, the magazines exploded. These explosions continued throughout the night. By dawn the ship, with a broken hull and melted superstructure, finally sank.

Further attacks the following day caused damage to the Landing Ships, Sir Galahad,, Sir Bedivere and Sir Tristam, with Argentine bombs again failing to explode.

Attacks continued and on the 25th of May, the merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor was hit by two Exocet missiles, penetrating her hull and causing massive fires, killing the captain and 11 of his crew. This ship carried the task force’s helicopters, needed for the land battle and their loss meant that British troops would have to march across the island to recapture Stanley.

Speaking later of the failure of Argentine bombs to detonate, Lord Craig, retired Marshal of the Royal Air Force, remarked that “six better fuses and we would have lost”. As it transpired however, the fault was not in the fuse but in the way they were deployed. To avoid the high concentration of British air defences, Argentine pilots were releasing their bombs from very low altitudes, giving the fuses too little time to arm before impact. The BBC reportedly broadcast this information and was severely criticised by the task force Commander, Admiral Woodward, who blamed them for alerting the Argentines to the supposed fault. Interestingly, Colonel H.Jones, commanding the Paras on Falkland, had also accused the BBC of giving information to the enemy when reporting on the capture of Goose Green before it actually happened and had threatened to bring charges of treason against the Board of Governors. Sadly he was killed at Goose Green before he could pursue the charge.

For whatever reason, the Argentine air force, shortly after, modified the bombs to detonate at low level. In total thirteen bombs had struck the task force without exploding and twenty two planes had been lost in the attempt.

On the 30th of May, the Argentines fired their last air launched Exocet at the carrier HMS Invincible, but it was shot down by the 4.5 inch gun of the frigate Avenger.

Further troop landings were made on the 8th of June at Bluff Cove and the landing ships Galahad and Tristram came under attack from the air. Both ships were damaged, but Galahad received three hits which started huge fires, detonating the ammunition store and killing some 48 of the Welsh Guards and sailors on board and wounding 115 more. The ship was abandoned and the wreck was later towed out to deep water by the submarine HMS Onyx where it finally sank. On the same day the frigate Plymouth was hit by four bombs and cannon fire from Dagger aircraft. One bomb hit aft, detonating one of the ships depth charges, one went clean through the funnel and two damaged her anti submarine mortars. All the bombs failed to explode, but extensive damage was caused.

A few days later the destroyer Glamorgan was hit by an Exocet missile that had been taken from the Argentine frigate Segul and fitted to a mobile launcher. The missile struck Glamorgan a glancing blow, skidded across the rear deck and exploded, blowing a ten foot by fifteen foot hole in the deck. The blast travelled upwards and destroyed the ship’s Wessex helicopter causing a large fire. Thirteen members of the crew were killed in the attack, but the fire was eventually brought under control.

The land battle to retake Port Stanley is now the stuff of history. The recapture of the islands was eventually achieved, albeit with a heavy cost in human lives and the union flag once again flew over the Falklands. The material cost had also been high however, with British losses of two destroyers, two frigates, two landing craft and one container ship, together with twenty helicopters and ten fighters. The Argentines lost a cruiser, a submarine, four cargo vessels, two patrol boats, together with twenty five helicopters and seventy five assorted fixed wing aircraft.

Once again, if only for a short time, Britannia did truly rule the waves.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »

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