HMS Coventry was sunk by the enemy on 25th May.

The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Defence For the Falklands War

I think it’s well-known that the strength of the Royal Navy in 1982 was far from its strongest. With no active wars for a while, most of the time was spent worrying about Russia and the Cold War.

Defence budget cuts were rife from the government. In 1981 Defence Secretary John Nott proposed massive reductions to the Royal Navy in the face of recession.

These proposals included selling BOTH of the aircraft carriers that Britain had at the time. HMS Invincible and Hermes were not the biggest aircraft carriers in the world but they were vital to the maritime defence of the UK.

HMS Hermes returning from the Falkland Islands.
HMS Hermes returning from the Falkland Islands.

Without these there would have been zero chance of being able to recapture the islands. They also suggested selling nine destroyers and frigates, minesweepers, auxiliary supply ships and two assault ships.

There were comments at the time by many saying that if the Argentinians had just waited a few more months it would have been almost impossible for Britain to recapture the islands. Recalling HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic had convinced the Argentinians that Britain would not respond with military action if they invaded.

Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward who commanded the Naval task force in 1982, said at the time:

Timing was certainly a ­factor for our victory in 1982.

Galtieri had wanted to attack much later during Argentina’s spring, after September. However, they got wind that one of our S-class submarines might have been making its way to the South Atlantic and that pressured him into attacking in March. I don’t even think that was correct.

Had he waited, we may well have been without our two aircraft carriers and we couldn’t have done a thing.

So What Did the Main Defence Consist of?

We sent as much as we could. The idea was to win the sea and air battles before the troops arrived for the land operations. This was what Brigadier Julian Thompson had been instructed.

There were already three nuclear-attack submarines heading to the South Atlantic. The two carriers Invincible and Hermes were also included. Joining them was a strong force of frigates and destroyers with three Type 42s leading the way in Glasgow, Sheffield and Coventry.

HMS Coventry was sunk by the enemy on 25th May.
HMS Coventry was sunk by the enemy on 25th May.

Two Type-22s were also leading the way and they were Brilliant and Broadsword.

The main responsibility for the air defence fell on the shoulders of the Sea Harriers. Not a single Harrier was lost in air-to-air combat, they performed excellently and were so versatile, they excelled.

The next layer of the defence fell to the Type-42 destroyers. Armed with Sea Dart missiles, it was a decent weapon when it worked. It had previously, during an exercise, destroyed a target at 51,000 feet moving at 1,500 mph. It did have one weakness though. If targets were flying low-level they couldn’t be engaged.

Low-Level Attacks

This was slightly worrying because the Argentine navy were also armed with the same weapons. They should therefore have been aware of the weakness, and they were, flying at low-level to conduct attacks as shown below.

 

With the enemy jets flying low, Sea Wolf missiles would be used but they were fitted only to two ships so couldn’t be used everywhere. Guns were the last line of defence. 40-mm bofors and 20-mm oerlikon anti-aircraft guns were old and not up to standard but it was all they had.

The Royal Navy went in to battle with the least amount of protection for any squadron since 1954. No airborne early warning systems were fitted to any ships. This was unheard of really, they were going to war with such a lack of equipment and technology that most would deem a necessity to travel 8,000 miles to take back the islands. If the Argentine forces were more up for a fight then the casualties could have been multiple times worse.

Six Harriers were lost but they were all from ground fire or anti-aircraft fire. By having the skilled pilots in the Harriers with air superiority obviously made life much easier for the ground troops that forced the surrender in only a short time.

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