The amphibious landings at San Carlos Bay involved a great number of ships. By the very nature of the landing and the role of those ships, they were very vulnerable to aerial attacks. Flying low over land that gave an approaching plane many advantages, the ships, at anchor, must have been inviting targets to pilots in the Argentine Air Force. The senior officer on the ‘Canberra’ probably best summed up the situation on the first day of the landings when he said:
“It’s going to be a day to remember.”
One of the first tasks of the men who landed at San Carlos Bay was to make ready Rapier missile sites around the bay. Not only would these protect the men onshore, but they would give the ships extra protection. Brigadier Thompson wanted 12 Rapier systems in places around the bay to give a maximum field of fire. Unfortunately for the ships in the bay – the men on shore were less obvious targets compared to the large nearly stationary ships anchored in the bay – the journey south had upset the delicate systems on the Rapiers and they took far longer to set up than was anticipated. As a result, the naval fleet was without the missile protection that it needed for much longer than was hoped for.
On board ship, the Sea Dart missile worked well against planes flying high but was less effective against low level attacks. It also took time to rearrange its settings and a Mirage could pass the two miles of San Carlos Bay in about 18 seconds. The Sea Wolf system was successful against a low level attack but it was only of use to the ship that fired the missile.
The consequences of this, combined with skilful flying by the Argentinean pilots, was that ships were either damaged or lost at sea.
HMS Sheffield had already been lost on May 4th.
On May 21st, the frigate HMS Ardent was lost and HMS Argonaut was badly damaged. Antrim, Brilliant and Broadsword were all hit by bombs that failed to explode.
On May 23rd, HMS Antelope was lost by a time-delayed bomb. HMS Glasgow was hit by a bomb that failed to explode.
On May 24th, Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot were hit by bombs that did not explode.
On May 25tth, HMS Coventry was lost and the Atlantic Conveyor was hit by an Exocet missile and sank three days later.
Such losses were not sustainable. The casualty rate would have been a lot higher if Argentine bombs had actually exploded once they had found their target. It was only later that the reason was found for this. The fuses on the bombs had been set at a certain height. However, the pilots flew in at a height lower than the fuses had been set at so that the bomb hit its target before it had been set to explode. Hence why so many of the Task Force’s ships were hit by bombs that did not explode. Ironically, the skill of the Argentine pilots in flying in so low over San Carlos may well have saved a number of ships. The records indicate that the bombs were primed to explode at 150 to 200 meters. However, the Argentine pilots in their Mirage and Skyhawk jets came in at about 50 meters. As an example, when the Antelope was hit, the Argentine pilot flew so low that he clipped the mast of the ship. He dropped two 500lb bombs but because of the fuses, neither exploded. However, while one was being defused, the other exploded breaking the back of ‘Antelope’. She sank in San Carlos Bay.
The senior commanders of the Argentine Air Force had also ordered its pilots to attack the warships as opposed to the amphibious assault ships (‘Fearless’ and ‘Intrepid’) and the supply ships. While a successful attack on a warship made for good propaganda, attacks on supply ships would have been more important as their loss would have starved the land forces of much needed supplies.
“I would say that where the grace of God comes in, is that on the first days landing in San Carlos the pilots went for the escorts and not the amphibious ships, for that might have stopped us altogether.” Major-General Moore.