The Battle of San Carlos was a battle between aircraft and ships that lasted from 21 to 25 May 1982 during the British landings on the shores of San Carlos Water (which became known as “Bomb Alley”) in the 1982 Falklands War. Low-flying land-based Argentine jet aircraft made repeated attacks on ships of the British Task Force.
It was the first time in history that a modern surface fleet armed with surface-to-air missiles and with air cover backed up by STOVL carrier-based aircraft defended against full-scale air strikes. The British sustained severe losses and damage but were able to create and consolidate a beachhead and land troops.
After the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands the United Kingdom initiated Operation Corporate, sending a Task Force 12000 km south in order to retake the islands. Under the codename Operation Sutton the British forces planned amphibious landings around San Carlos, on an inlet located off Falkland Sound, the strait between East Falkland and West Falkland. The location was chosen as the landing force would be protected by the terrain against Exocet and submarine attacks, and it was distant enough from Stanley to prevent a rapid reaction from Argentine ground troops stationed there.
The landing took the Argentines completely by surprise; Argentine Navy officers had considered that the location was not a good choice for such an operation, and had left the zone without major defences.
The Argentine Army force on site was a section from the 25th Infantry Regiment named Combat team Güemes located at Fanning Head. The British fleet entered San Carlos during the night and at 02:50 was spotted by EC Güemes which opened fire with 81mm mortars and two recoilless 105mm rifles. They were soon engaged by British naval gunfire and a 25-man SBS team and forced to retreat, losing their communications equipment but shooting down two Gazelle helicopters with small-arms fire, killing three members of the two aircrews.
1st Lt Carlos Daniel Esteban from EC Güemes informed Goose Green garrison about the landings at 08:22 (he was finally evacuated by helicopter on 26 May). The Argentine high command at Stanley initially thought that a landing operation was not feasible at San Carlos and the operation was a diversion. At 10:00, a COAN Aermacchi MB-339 jet based on the islands was dispatched to San Carlos on a reconnaissance flight. In the meantime, the FAA had already started launching their mainland-based aircraft at 09:00.
Between 10:15 and 17:12 seventeen sorties were carried out by FAA and COAN. Dagger and A-4C of the FAA made attacks on HMS Antrim, HMS Argonaut, HMS Broadsword, HMS Brilliant, HMS Ardent, HMS Brilliant. Sorties of MIIIEA aircraft were used as diversions as-well. While many of the bombs did not explode, HMS Ardent and HMS Argonaut were hit, sustaining damage and casualties. Sea Harriers intercepted some of the attackers, destroying 8 FAA aircraft.
Bad weather over the Patagonia airfields prevented the Argentines from carrying out most of their air missions; only a few Skyhawks managed to reach the islands. The British completed their surface-to-air Rapier battery launcher deployments.
On 23 May Argentine aircraft resumed attacking, striking HMS Antelope, HMS Broadsword, HMS Yarmouth, and HMS Antelope. Only HMS Antelope was damaged, sinking after an unexploded bomb detonated while being defused. Of the attacking aircraft, two were shot down. An additional COAN pilot was killed after ejecting from his A-4Q after a tyre burst upon landing.
On 24 May the Argentine pilots on the continent openly expressed their concern about the lack of collaboration between the three branches of the armed forces, and protested with passive resistance. General Galtieri, acting president of Argentina, decided to visit Comodoro Rivadavia the next day, 25 May (Argentina’s National Day), to try to convince them to keep fighting, but when he arrived in the morning the pilots had changed their minds and were already flying to the islands.
Six sorties were launched by the FAA against the British forces. RFA Sir Lancelot and probably Sir Galahad and Sir Bedivere and ground targets were attacked. Four attack aircraft were shot down, with one pilot killed.
Attacks by the FAA on 25 May proved more successful than the previous day. HMS Coventry was sunk after being hit with 500 lb (230 kg) bombs. Attacks on HMS Broadsword damaged the frigate’s communication systems and hydraulics and shattered the nose of her Sea Lynx helicopter. RFA Sir Lancelot was also attacked. One sortie accidentally attacked Goose Green, mistaking it for Ajax bay, and were hit by small arms friendly fire. Three attackers were shot down, one by a Rapier Missile from ‘T’ Battery of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery and two by Sea Dart fired by HMS Coventry.
In spite of the British air defence network, the Argentine pilots were able to attack their targets but some serious procedural failures prevented them from getting better results – most notably problems with their bombs’ fuses. Thirteen bombs hit British ships without detonating. Lord Craig, the retired Marshal of the Royal Air Force, is said to have remarked: “Six better fuses and we would have lost”.
The British warships, although themselves suffering most of the attacks, were successful in keeping the strike aircraft away from the landing ships, which were well inside the bay. With the British troops on Falklands soil, a land campaign followed until Argentine General Mario Menéndez surrendered to British Major General Jeremy Moore on 14 June in Stanley.
The subsonic Harrier jump-jet, armed with the most advanced variant of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, proved capable as an air superiority fighter.
The actions had a profound impact on later naval practice. During the 1980s most warships from navies around the world were retrofitted with close-in weapon systems and guns for self-defence. First reports of the number of Argentine aircraft shot down by British missile systems were subsequently revised down.