The Bombing of the Sir Galahad

The Falklands War ended more than twenty five years ago and still today we do not have a full account of what happened on the Falklands in 1982. Details of the battles, the exchanges of fire, even the deployment of troops and equipment that occurred during the conflict are mostly incomplete. This fact could be attributed to the relative small impact that the Falklands campaign had on the world stage or the fact that it was not as “dramatic” as others wars. Or maybe it was the fact that the war was being waged during a transitional time, the era of cable news channels and 24-7 news networks were beginning to emerge, thus its coverage was not as conventional as it was during World War II, Korea or even Vietnam. Whatever the fact was, there’s still much to learn about the conflict. There were one particular strike that needs to be reviewed and studied further: the case of the Sir Galahad.

The Sir Galahad was a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Landing Ship Logistics (LSL). It was commissioned in 1967 and was deployed to the Falklands war theater in 1982. On the night of June 6th a series of sea transfers left the Galahad and another British warship, the Sir Tristam, exposed in an undefended inlet, Port Pleasant, on the south coast of the Falklands. On the morning of June 7th, with the sky clear of cloud cover, the newly arrived Galahad was filled with combat troops and equipment ready for disembarking. Argentine troops on Mount Harriet, a full ten miles away, were observing the Tristram’s movements during the 6th. When they returned to their observation post on the morning hours of the 7th, they were surprised to see another British warship, the Galahad, stationed even closer to their position than the Tristram was a day before. The spotters immediately reported the sighting to command headquarters and they soon afterwards ordered a major air strike against the exposed British LSL ship Galahad. Eight Skyhawks and six Daggers of the 5th and 6th Argentine Fighter Groups were loaded with contact bombs and dispatched to attack the LSL from the south entrance of the inlet. A Learjet was launched to provide the strike group with accurate navigational information. Preceding the arrival of the initial strike package would be four Mirages of the 8th Fighter Group. Their mission was to simulate a low level incursion along the north coast of the islands and then turn away. This strike package would act as a decoy. Their assignment was to lure the British Sea Harrier combat patrols away from the incoming Skyhawks and Daggers.

In the early morning hours of the 7th, the main attack package departed. On their way to the target, three Skyhawks, including both flight leaders, and a Dagger; turned back due to mechanical problems. Meanwhile, the Mirage decoy package was commencing its simulated bomb run. They were successful in attracting the attention of the British Sea Harrier patrols circling overhead the two exposed ships. The package lead attack element was the Dagger asset. Five Daggers were in position to commence their strike profile when the lead element spotted another warship in the eastward vicinity of Port Pleasant. She was the Royal Navy’s frigate Plymouth. The Dagger’s leader decided to turn his formation towards the unsuspecting ship. Each of the five aircraft made a bomb run on the ship’s port side. The vessel was hit with four contact bombs. None of them exploded – a common problem that plagued Argentine’s free-fall bomb arsenal during the war. The Plymouth fired her anti-aircraft guns, hitting one Dagger on the wing structure. After the brief attack, all the Daggers returned safely to their base on the mainland.

As a result of the Dagger’s variation of the profile order, the Skyhawks were left alone with the task of attacking the Galahad. The Skyhawks were helped by the Dagger’s attack on the Plymouth. By the time the five members of the Skyhawks package were commencing their bomb runs, the British air patrol had left the Galahad area, leaving the two ships almost undefended. After reaching their target site, the ‘Hawks dropped down to sea level in an effort to evade the British tracking radar systems. They accelerated to 500 mph. As they approached the Galahad, the leader of the package, First Lieutenant Cachon, spotted a Sea Lynx helicopter near a hill overlooking the inlet. He ordered his team to take evasive action in order to miss the Lynx and avoid detection. They accomplished that task by diving into the inlet’s south side and staying low. As they did this, the British ground troops north of Fitzroy Bay, started to fire at the flight of ‘Hawks. The British even fired a couple of anti-aircraft missiles at the package. The flight immediately banked to the left, at an angle of 30 degree. When they completed their turn, the Galahad was just in front of them. The five Skyhawks began to deploy their bomb load. Two ‘Hawks bombed a vehicle on the Galahad’s deck destroying it. The remaining three aircraft, after watching their teammates attacking the Galahad, decided to attack the Tristram.

After their bomb run was over, Cachon and his team had made one of the best executed Argentine air strikes of the conflict. The relative small number of anti-aircraft guns on the Galahad, enabled the package to come in at a sufficiently high altitude to allow their bombs time to arm in flight. Three bombs fell on the Galahad. A couple of explosions followed and then a huge fire erupted. In all, forty-eight men were killed that day on the Galahad. The ship was completely gutted. Only one of the two bombs that hit the Tristram exploded. Although it caused less structural damage to the ship, it killed two sailors on board. When the ‘Hawks returned to their home base and reported what had just occured, the Argentine high command decided to deploy four additional aircraft in an effort to inflict more damage to the British Navy. The four aircraft that were to attempt the attack were also Skyhawks from the 4th Fighter Group. They departed their mainland base en route to engage the crippled Galahad and hopefully, the Tristram. On their way there, they passed above British units conducting combat operations around Fitzroy. The British fired a barrage of heavy anti-aircraft fire including the launching of some Rapier missiles. The four attacking ‘Hawks were all damaged, forcing them to return back to their base. Due to the extent of the damage, the aircraft were only able to fly as far as the Argentine base at San Julian near the coast.

The last Argentine sortie of the day achieved a minor success. Four ‘Hawks of the 5th Fighter Group flying in a back-up capacity, found a British landing craft in the Choiseul Sound. The first two ‘Hawks on the package strafed the craft with cannon fire. The result was the destruction of the small craft and the killing of the six men that where in it. A pair of Sea Harriers patrolling the area where the Argentine’s initial attack occurred, spotted the Argentine fighters striking around the destroyed landing craft. They proceeded to engage the ‘Hawks with Sidewinder missiles. One ‘Hawk was destroyed immediately while the second Argentine fighter was cut by another missile. Another ‘Hawk was also hit by the incoming Sidewinder. In all, three Skyhawks were destroyed and the three pilots were killed. This action ended the air engagement between the British and Argentines for the day. As the news trickled down, the Argentineans started celebrating their surprising victory over the mighty Royal Navy while the British commenced the painful process of identifying their comrades killed. The actions of June 7th, 1982 paved the way for an improvement in British air combat patrols and operations above their fleet. It also helped fuel the impression on the part of the Argentineans that they could engage and inflict damage to the vaunted Royal Navy.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Fight For The Falklands – Twenty Years On

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