Friday, May 04, 2007

A quarter century ago...

Twenty-five years ago today, at seven minutes past 5 a.m, local time, the SP-2H Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, tail number 0708/2-P-112 became airborne from Rio Grande Naval Air Base in Argentina. It's mission was to seek out ships of the British task force approaching the Falkland Islands. By 7:50 it had made its first detection. A few minutes later it detected more. It was ordered to maintain contact but divert away from the British fleet and give the appearance of searching for survivors of the cruiser General Belgrano which had been sunk by the British submarine HMS Conquerer two days earlier.

The sinking of the General Belgrano had been controversial but it had given the sailors, marines and soldiers of the British task force some hope that the retaking of the Falkland Islands would be one-sided and very short.

The flight of 0708/2-P-112 would end that thought.

At 9:45 a.m. local time the Super Entendards 0752/3-A-202 and 0752/3-A-203 launched from Rio Grande Naval Air Base, climbed to make a rendezvous with their airborne tanker, refueled in flight and proceeded towards the British fleet. Both aircraft were armed with AM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles.

Both aircraft were flying low towards the British fleet. After twice climbing to check targets they acquired contacts from an altitude of 500 feet. Unlike what was the advertised launch profile of an Exocet, the Argentinians, at 11:04 a.m., launched their missiles closer to the surface and closer to their targets than should have been possible.

Onboard HMS Sheffield the Type 965 air-search radar (a temporary fit) detected an incoming contact. Because the Argentinians had not flown the expected missile launch profile and the launch aircraft had not been detected by Sheffield the operations room was unable to resolve the contact. The missile was detected visually by its exhaust trail when it was one mile away from the ship. Less than five seconds later, with no more warning that someone yelling "Missile!" the Exocet slammed into the side of HMS Sheffield, around the galley, and destroyed her operations room and main propulsion machinery. Because the missile had been fired from point blank range, it had unexpended fuel which spewed into the ship and caused a massive fire.

HMS Sheffield was destroyed, along with 20 of her crew.

It was then that everyone knew the fight to retake the Falklands was going to be violent, bloody and gut-wrenching. And the Argentinians were already showing a capability and tenacity no one had expected.

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