Exocet!

The web masters of Britain's Small Wars have always been interested in publishing accounts from the 'Other Side', as we think it is important to show both sides of the story. Therefore we would like to thank Mr. Diego Zampini, the author of this page, for kindly allowing us to publish his work.  We'd like to point out that we, the web masters, do not  agree with Mr. Zampini's account of the attack against HMS Invincible.

Note: This article mainly contains the Argentine version of the war. The British version will be mentioned, but I will consider the Argentine assertions as the truth. This article is also devoted to all the personnel from the Argentine Navy that fought and worked hard during the Malvinas/Falklands conflict in 1982. - Diego Zampini.

In September 1980, fifty pilots and technician personnel of the 2ª Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Caza y Ataque (2nd Air Naval Fighter and Strike Squadron) of the CANA (Comando de Aviación Naval Argentina, Argentine Naval Aviation Command) arrived at Rochefort Naval Base, in France. Among the group of pilots were the unit's commander, Frigate Captain Jorge Colombo, and sub-commander, Corvette Captain Augusto Bedacarratz. The rest of the pilots were: Corvette Captains Roberto Agotegaray, Roberto Curilovic and Alejandro Francisco, and Warship Lieutenants Luis Collavino, Julio Barrraza, Juan Rodriguez Mariani, Armando Mayora and Carlos Machetanz. All the pilots had hundreds of hours flying A-4Q Skyhawks (the main type of combat plane used by the CANA by that time).

After three months of French language teaching, they were sent to Landivisiau Air Naval Base, where they flew training sorties in Morane Saulnier planes during 30 days and then began to know their future combat tool - the AMD-BA (Avions Marcel Dassault - Breguet Aviation) Super Etendard. Later, the Argentine pilots started to learn the basic flight lessons in the Super Etendard (a maximum of 50 hours of flight by each pilot) and basic notions about the weapon systems, especially the anti-ship missile AM.39 Exocet. The technical specifications of them are:


 
AMD-BA Super Etendard:
AMD-BA Super Etendard
  • Engine: turbojet SNECMA Atar 8K-50 with a throtle of 5.000 kilograms.
  • Top speed at sea level: 1200 km/h.
  • Ceiling: 13,700 mts.
  • Range flying at sea level: 720 kms.
  • Weapons: two 30 mm cannons, and 2,270 kgs of weapons load (including bombs, air-to-air R.550 Magic missiles and anti-ship AM.39 Exocet missiles).
AM.39 Exocet
AM.39 Exocet
  • Type: airborne "fire and forget" anti-ship missile.
  • Lenght: 5.20 meters.
  • Diameter: 35 centimeters.
  • Wingspan: 1 meter.
  • Weight: 655 kgs.
  • Range: 70 kms (35 miles) Cruise speed: 1100 km/h (Mach 0.9)
  • Left: The Exocet family. The SM.39 is the submarine launched version, while both the MM.38 and MM.40 are the ship-to-ship versions. The last member of the family is the AM.39; the air-to-ship version. This was the type of missile used by the Argentine 2nd Air Naval Squadron.

To attack a ship with the AM.39 version is a work of two stages: first, the missile is guided by the plane's fire control system, which gives to the missile the target's coordinates and these coordinates are obtained by the plane's radar. When the missile is launched, it dives to an altitude of 30 meters, which is later fixed at only 2.5 meters by the missile's radio altimeter. In the few final seconds of flight, the missile activates its own radar and searches for the target. If it finds any, the missile locks on to it and guides itself to the impact point.

The Argentine pilots and technicians returned to Comandante Espora Air Naval Base (Buenos Aires Province, Argentina) in July 1981 and began the preparation for arrival of the first five Super Etendards, which finally happened in November 1981. The Argentine Navy had ordered a total number of 14 aircraft, and the same number of Exocets. The Argentine pilots tested the navigation system of the five planes as much as they could, and started to do the same with the weapon system.

The War Began

But on April 2nd 1982, when the 2nd Squadron was waiting the arrival of the French technical team to put the Exocets in an operational status, Argentina performed the military reconquest of the Falklands Islands - called Malvinas in Spanish language - usurped by the British government in 1833. One of the first acts of the French government was to declare a weapons embargo against Argentina until the conflict ended.

Of course, it deprived the 2nd Squadron of the possibility of being assisted by French technicians but the Argentine personnel of the unit, far from giving up, faced on their own the challenge to set up the Exocets. Two weeks later, the interface between airplane and missile had been solved, and the tests on anti-ship strikes began. Fortunately for the Argentineans, the country had bought from Great Britain two Type 42 destroyers (the same class used by the Royal Navy), the ARA Hércules and ARA Santísima Trinidad. In consequence, the unit's pilots tested and improved the attack tactics against these kinds of ships.

On May 1st 1982, The RAF and Royal Navy planes attacked the main Argentine airfields and positions in the islands. The Argentine Navy organized a combined strike against the British aircraft carriers: eight A-4Qs belonging to the 3rd Air Naval Fighter and Strike Squadron on board the Argentine carrier, ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, and two Super Etendards from Río Grande Air Naval Base would attack at the same time on May 2nd. But that day both arms of the attack had problems; the naval Skyhawks needed a minimum wind to help them take off from the carrier, and unexpectedly the wind, normally strong in the South Atlantic, did not blow. On the 2nd Squadron's side, both Super Etendards, piloted by the unit commander, Jorge Colombo, and his wingman Carlos Machetanz, were affected by problems that did not allow them to receive fuel from the KC-130H Hercules tanker. Later that same day the British submarine HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano and forced the Argentine Sea Fleet to come back to Puerto Belgrano Naval Base.

A recent photograph of the SP-2H Neptune 0708/2-P-112 in the Air Naval Museum placed at Puerto Belgrano Naval Base, within Comandante Espora Air Naval Base.

A recent photograph of the SP-2H Neptune 0708/2-P-112 in the Air Naval Museum placed at Puerto Belgrano Naval Base, within Comandante Espora Air Naval Base. On May 4th 1982 this plane, when piloted by Corvette Captain Ernesto Proni Leston, detected the destroyer HMS Sheffield and gave her coordinates to the Super Etendards armed with Exocets.


 
 

The End of the HMS Sheffield

At 5:07 hrs on May 4th 1982, a SP-2H Neptune, serial number 0708/2-P-112, call sign 'Mercurio', belonging to the Exploration Squadron of the CANA, took off from Río Grande Air Naval Base. The plane's crew was composed of three members, and the pilot was Corvette Captain Ernesto Proni Leston (the other members were the copilot and Operative Control Officer, surnamed Pernussi). Originally the mission was to detect any British naval activity to allow a group of C-130s to land on Puerto Argentino's airport, but even when the flight of the Hercules was aborted, the Neptune sortie stands. At 7:50 the Neptune had his first radar contact with a British warship, and Proni reported the news to the CANA. He was ordered to keep contact but with discretion. 'Mercurio' had two other contacts at 8:14 and 8:43. A few minutes later an order from the High Command of CANA arrived to evade any contact until 10:00 hrs. Proni guessed that an Exocet sortie was on the way, and set the Neptune's course to the area of the wreckage of the ARA General Belgrano, pretending to be part of a rescue mission searching for survivors.

The Neptune's path
This was the flight path followed by the Neptune of Corvette
Captain Proni Leston on May 4th 1982.

The news about Captain Proni's findings arrived to Río Grande quickly, and it was the turn for Corvette Captain Augusto César Bedacarratz and Frigate Lieutenat Armando Mayora to fly the anti-ship sorties, and all the other pilots helped to prepare the flight paths, points of meeting with the KC-130H tanker, etc. Both Super Etendards took off from Río Grande at 9:45 hrs. Bedacarratz, the leader, (call sign 'Aries') flew the plane 0752/3-A-202, and Mayora, the wingman, (call sign 'Boina') did so with his plane 0753/3-A-203. At 10:00 hrs they met the KC-130H tanker provided by the FAA (Fuerza Aérea Argentina - Argentine Air Force) piloted by Vicecommodore Pessana and received all the necessary fuel to complete the mission.

At 10:35, Corvette Captain Proni did his last climb at 1,170 meters (3,500 feet) and detected a big contact and two medium-size in the coordinates 52º 33' 55'' South, 57º 40' 55'' West. A few minutes later he radioed both Super Etendards and gave the information to Bedacarratz. After that, Proni set his course to Río Grande and landed at 12:04 hrs. His long sortie had reached the end.

But the mission of the SUEs (nickname given by the Argentine pilots to the Super Etendards) had just begun. Flying at very low altitude, around 10:50 hrs they climbed at 160 meters (500 feet) to verify the coordinates given by Proni, but they found... nothing! Both pilots turned back to searching and Bedacarratz decided to continue. 40 kms (25 miles) later they climbed again and, after a few seconds of scanning, the targets appeared on their radar screens. Both pilots loaded the coordinates in their weapons systems, turned back to low level, and after the last minute check, launched their AM.39 Exocets. The exact time was 11:04 hrs.

During the flight back to the base, Bedacarratz realized that they would not need the KC-130H assistance, and called to Vicecommodore Pessana declining the refuelling. Pessano was then the first Argentine officer to know the success of the mission. Bedacarratz and Mayora landed at 12:04 hrs, exactly an hour after having launched the missiles. It is unnecessary to say that they were received by their happy comrades as heroes.


 

Argentine pilots belonging to the 2nd Air Naval Fighter 
and Strike Squadron of the Argentine Navy.

Argentine pilots belonging to the 2nd Air Naval Fighter and Strike Squadron of the Argentine Navy.

From left to right: Frigate Lieutenant Rodríguez Mariani, Corvette Captain Curilovic (who participated in the May 25th sortie when the Atlantic Conveyor was sunk), Frigate Captain Colombo (unit commander) , Corvette Captain Agotegaray, Warship Lieutenant Francisco (who hit the British carrier HMS Invincible on May 30th), Corvette Captain Bedacarratz (who participated in the attack on HMS Sheffield on May 4th), and Warship Lieutenant Collavino (who supported Francisco on May 30th). The Super Etendard behind them is the 0752/3-A-202, the plane used by Bedacarratz on May 4th 1982 during the mission against the Sheffield, and the aircraft flown by Alejandro Francisco on May 30th 1982.

What happened to the Exocets? According to British sources, Peter Walpole, an officer on the deck of the destroyer Type 42 HMS Sheffield, who was trying to identify visually a radar contact reported by the Operations officer of the ship, Nick Batho, saw a little smoke trail and finally identified it as an Exocet, but he did it when the missile was at only 1 mile away from the destroyer. Four seconds later the missile hit the ship with tremendous strength. It was one of the war's ironies that one of the most modern ships of the Royal Navy had only shouts as a missile warning. Some sources affirmed that what caused the fire in the Sheffield was not the warhead, but the remaining missile's fuel; but others, including the Sheffield's Captain, Samuel Salt, assert that the missile's warhead exploded, destroying the Operations Center and the engineering. Whatever the actual cause, the result remains the same; the destroyer HMS Sheffield had received a death wound. It was the first time that an airborne anti-ship missile was tested in combat.


 
One of the many photographs showing the burning HMS Sheffield.

One of the many photographs showing the burning HMS Sheffield. The Exocet missile hit the engines room, where the warhead exploded. The ship was left without electric supply instantly, and so the anti-fire system could not be activated. The fire soon expanded through all the ship. A total number of 22 British sailors died in the wreckage

Right: Another picture of the dying HMS Sheffield. The fate of the second Exocet remains a mystery, but according to British sources, it narrowly missed the frigate HMS Yarmouth and finally fell into the sea.

HMS Sheffield on fire

Changes in the Searching Method

A very important trouble appeared then. The 'eyes' of the Super Etendards were the Neptunes, but on May 15th these machines were deactivated from active service, due to the lack of spare pieces and the obsolescence of their radar crystals. After that, the Argentine Navy had the idea to use the services of the three-dimensional radar AN/TPS-43F and the surveillance radar AN/TPS-44 Alert IIA, both placed in Puerto Argentino. These radars were constantly following the movements of all the British planes, establishing with some accuracy the sites from where the British carriers launched their Harriers and Sea Harriers. Soon it was clear that these movements followed a certain pattern, and so they could be fairly predicted and anticipated.

With this information, on May 23rd two new sorties by Super Etendards attempted to attack the British carriers. The aircraft were piloted by Corvette Captain Roberto Agotegaray and Warship Lieutenant Juan Rodríguez Mariani, who took off in the first hours of the evening, and the meeting with the KC-130H was completed without problems, but when both planes reached the target area they did not find anything. Even when the Argentine pilots scanned the area carefully, they were unable to find a target and so decided to return at 17:50 hrs. But this unsuccessful mission did not invalidate the search method, which was tested again two days later.

14,946 British tons sink in the waters of the South Atlantic

On May 25th 1982, the Argentine radars in Puerto Argentino could define a possible target placed 176 kms (110 miles) Northeast of Puerto Argentino. At 7:30 this data arrived at Río Grande, and a mission was programmed for 9:00 hrs, but it was delayed until the evening due to the lack of a KC-130H to refuel the planes in flight. Finally both Super Etendards took off from Río Grande at 14:28 hrs and set their course to a meeting point with the KC-130H at 256 kms (160 miles) East of Puerto Deseado. The Argentine leader, Corvette Captain Roberto Curilovic, (call sign 'Tito') flew the Super Etendard 0753/3-A-203, and the wingman, Warship Lieutenant Julio Barraza, (call sign 'Leo') did so with the 0754/3-A-204.


 

The Super Etendard in the picture is the 0753/3-A-203. It was flown by Warship Lieutenant Armando Mayora on May 4th, and used again by Corvette Captain Roberto Curilovic on May 25th 1982 against the MV Atlantic Conveyor. The photograph was taken a few minutes before the beginning of the latter mission (you can see the AM.39 Exocet under the right wing of the aircraft).

The Super Etendard in the picture is the 0753/3-A-203.

Curilovic and Barraza met the KC-130H in the planned time and place, and after the refueling, both set their course to the South East, right to the target (at this time 480 kms away - 300 miles). When they were at 240 kms (150 miles) of the target coordinates began to fly in at only 8 or 10 meters over the sea. Both pilots found the target exactly where the radars had predicted (58º 38' South, 56º 8' West), and they loaded the coordinates in the weapon system, launched the Exocets at 16:31 hrs and turned back. After a second meeting with the tanker, they returned to Río Grande at 18:38 hrs. It was the longest range mission of the Super Etendard. They flew 2,592 kms (1,620 miles) during 3 hours and 50 minutes. According to British sources, the Exocets hit the cargo ship MV Atlantic Conveyor at 16:36 hrs and the ship caught fire and sank in a couple of hours. It was the greatest logistic loss suffered by the British Task Force 317, because the Atlantic Conveyor was carrying tents for 5,000 men, at least ten helicopters (three Chinooks HC.1 of the 18th Sqdn. RAF, six Wessexs HU.5 of the 848th Sqdn. RN, and one Lynx HAS.2 of the 815th Squadron RN), spare engines and pieces for the Harriers, a plant to make sea water drinkable, and the materials to build a mobile runway for the Sea Harriers. In the wreckage also 12 British sailors were killed, including Ian North, the captain of the Atlantic Conveyor.


 
 
The map shows the course of all the missions performed by the Argentine Super Etendards, including the aborted mission on May 2nd and the unsuccessful sortie on May 23rd.

The map shows the course of all the missions performed by the Argentine Super Etendards, including the aborted mission on May 2nd and the unsuccessful sortie on May 23rd. The date of each mission is indicated next to the path, and the small pictures of ships indicate which target was sunk/hit in each mission.

A drawing of the Super Etendard 0753/3-A-203 piloted by Curilovic on May 25th 1982.

A drawing of the Super Etendard 0753/3-A-203 piloted by Curilovic on May 25th 1982.
The unit's badge, nicknamed 'La Lora' ('The Female Parrot').

The unit's badge, nicknamed 'La Lora' ('The Female Parrot'), though it actually represents a sparrow hawk armed with a stick. The picture also shows the marked silhouettes of the ships that this plane contributed to sink: the HMS Sheffield and the MV Atlantic Conveyor.

A photograph of Corvette Captain Roberto Curilovic taken when he was descending from the cockpit of his Super Etendard after the mission on May 25th.

A photograph of Corvette Captain Roberto Curilovic taken when he was descending from the cockpit of his Super Etendard after the mission on May 25th.
This picture shows the aspect of the Atlantic Conveyor once the fire was finally extinguished, and it was evident that the ship could not be saved.

This picture shows the aspect of the Atlantic Conveyor once the fire was finally extinguished, and it was evident that the ship could not be saved. While some sources assert that only one of the Exocets hit the cargo ship, others affirm that both missiles hit and exploded. A great amount of British military supplies sank with the ship, including three out of four HC.4 Chinook helicopters of the 18th Sqdn. RAF and six HU.5 Wessexs of the 848th Sqdn. RN. The loss of these helicopters delayed the British offensive against Puerto Argentino, the capital, and the main Argentine garrison of the islands.

The attack against the HMS Invincible

After the Atlantic Conveyor wreckage, the Argentine Navy had only one Exocet left, and the British carriers still were the main Argentine targets. For these reasons, on May 29th the CANA and the FAA decided to perform a joint operation. Four pilots of A-4C Skyhawk belonging to the Grupo 4 de Caza (4th Fighter Group) received the assignment -actually two of them, 1st Lieutenants Ernesto Ureta and José Vazquez, volunteered, and chose the other two pilots, 1st Lieutenant Omar Castillo and Ensign Gerardo Isaac- and were sent to Río Grande. The plan was that once the Super Etendards launched the remaining Exocet, the Skyhawks followed the trail of the missile and hit the carrier with their 227 kgs (500 pounds) bombs. Of course, the A-4Cs would face the worst of the enemy defences.

About 12:30 hrs on May 30th 1982, two Super Etendards took off from Río Grande; the SUE 0752/3-A-202, piloted by the leader, Warship Lieutenant Alejandro Francisco, took off first , and second was the SUE 0755/3-A-205, flown by the wingman, Warship Lieutenant Luis Collavino. Five minutes later, the A-4Cs, belonging to the Air Force, also took off. Francisco carried the Exocet, and Collavino provided support and verification. The call signs of the Super Etendards and Skyhawks were 'Ala' and 'Zonda' respectively.

All the planes climbed to an altitude of 7,000 meters (21,000 feet) and flew to the rendezvous point with the KC-130H, where all the fighters were resupplied with fuel for 300 kms. After this refueling the planes turned to the east, with both SUEs separated by 1,600 meters (1 mile) and two Skyhawks behind each. When all of them were at 304 kms (190 miles) from the target area, they dived to an altitude of 30 meters (100 feet). Around 14:32 'Ala 1', Francisco, reported they had locked the Exocet on the target. 'Ala 2', Collavino, confirmed the lock and so Francisco launched the missile. With this launch, the participation of the 2nd Air Naval Squadron in the war came to an end. Both Super Etendards turned back and headed towards the meeting point with the KC-130H, and after that arrived at Río Grande without problems.

This historical photograph shows the SUE # 0752/3-A-202 piloted by Warship Lieutenant Alejandro Francisco when refueling on its way to the target.

This historical photograph shows the SUE # 0752/3-A-202 piloted by Warship Lieutenant Alejandro Francisco when refueling on its way to the target, HMS Invincible on May 30th 1982. The last AM.39 Exocet can be seen under the right wing of the SUE, and the four A-4C Skyhawks of the 4th Fighter Group of the Argentine Air Force can also be seen far behind, waiting for their turn to refuel.

After the Exocet's launching, the Air Force's Skyhawks followed the trail of the missile, and watched the appearance of a thick smoke column on the horizon, an so they headed for it. When they were at 12 kms (7.5 miles) a SAM destroyed Vazquez's aircraft and so did another to Castillo's Skyhawk at 2 kms (1.25 miles) to the target. According to British sources, they were Sea Darts launched by the destroyer HMS Exeter. Both pilots died. But the survivors, Ureta and Isaac 'Zonda 3' and 'Zonda 4' respectively, reached the target, dropped their bombs and fired all their gun's ammunition. After that, they turned back, performed evasive maneuvers against the British SAMs and AAA, and got out of the danger zone without damage. Both planes reached the KC-130H and refuelled, arriving at Río Grande 3 hours and 47 minutes after they had taken off. During the debriefing, both pilots described the attacked target as a carrier, and specifically as the HMS Invincible.

Note: There is not an official British version about the attack, but the theory exposed in the book 'Falklands, the Air War' is the following: the ship attacked by Ureta and Isaac was the frigate HMS Avenger, which was loosing white smoke as a curtain, and its helicopter's flight deck was wrongly mistaken as the flight deck of a carrier by the Argentine pilots. All the bombs of the Skyhawks missed. The problem with this version is the fact that the smoke seen by the Argentine pilots was not white, but black. It is also ridiculous that well trained pilots as Ureta and Isaac could misidentify the short deck of a frigate with the long and lateral one of a carrier. It is also suspicious that the Invincible appeared at Port Stanley almost two months after the attack, in August 1982 and when she returned to Portsmouth on September 17th 1982, a big strip on the port side looked as if it had been recently repainted.

The Argentine version said that the last Exocet missile was perfectly locked-on to the target (a big ship) by the Super Etendard pilot, who fired it  and turned back to Río Grande without troubles. The four A-4C Skyhawks of  4th Group followed the trail of the missile and finally saw in the distance  a big column of black smoke, possibly the place where the missile  impacted. Two of them were shot down, but the survivors confirmed that they  saw a carrier, and specifically the HMS Invincible with a thick black smoke  column coming out of it. They attacked it, firing their cannons and dropping their bombs, without confirming any results. After avoiding all the SAMs fired against them, the Skyhawks met their tanker and returned home.

The British version of this incident exposed that the Exocet failed its mark, the HMS Invincible, due to it being downed by a 114 mm shell from the frigate  HMS Avenger, or due to it being neutralized by decoys. Additionally, they asserted  that the ship attacked by the A-4C Skyhawks was the HMS Avenger, which was deploying a curtain of white smoke to hide the carrier from any attacker. Many specialists said that the Argentine pilots misidentified the small flight deck of the anti-submarine helicopter with the flight deck of the carrier, and wrongly thought that the smoke of the curtain was cause by the Exocet hit.

But from the Argentine point of view, the problems with such versions are:

1)  it is highly unlikely that a 114 mm shell could actually destroy a sea-skimming missile flying at 10 metres high at 1,000 km/h.

2) the decoys fully failed only five days before, when the MV Atlantic Conveyor was sunk, and why should they work that day?

3) the smoke seen by the Argentine Skyhawk pilots was not white, but black.

4) Even in a stress situation like being attacked with AAA and SAM fire, it is hard to mis-identify the big, lateral flight deck of a carrier with the small helicopter flight deck of a frigate.

5) Besides all that, HMS Invincible did not appear in Port Stanley until late July 1982, and when she returned to England in September 1982, it looked like a big stripe on the port side (the side attacked by the Exocet and the Skyhawks) recently painted.

All that made me think that the carrier, HMS Invincible was  actually hit that May 30 1982 (not seriously hit, but hit at last) and we have good reason to think that. Of course we could be wrong, but we truly  and sincerely believe that.´


 

The A-4C Skyhawk pilots belonging to the 4th Fighter Group, who survived the attack against the British carrier HMS Invincible, were 1st Lt. Ernesto Rubén Ureta (Left) and Ensign Gerardo Guillermo Isaac (Right). They are posing with WWII French Ace Pierre Clostermann (Center). Both pilots are completely sure that the ship which was hit by the Exocet, and later attacked by them, was the Invincible.

The A-4C Skyhawk pilots belonging to the 4th Fighter Group

The lesson extracted from the war was that a small group of professional pilots and technicians can ruin the day of the most powerful fleet in the world. The Argentine pilots of Super Etendards taught that lesson to the proud Royal Navy in May 1982.


 

Sources:

  • Emilio Villarino, "Exocet", September 1986, Editorial Abril, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Brigadier Benigno H. Andrada, "Guerra Aérea en las Malvinas", Emecé Editores S.A., Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1983.
  • Rodney A. Burden, Michael I Draper, Douglas A. Rough, Colin R. Smith & David A. Wilton, "Falklands, the Air War", Arms and Armour Press, 1987.
  • Paul Eddy, Magnus Linklater, Peter Gillman & Insight team of The Sunday Times, "The Falklands War", 1982.

Acknowledgments:

To my brother Pablo for his help in the production of the text in English language.



Diego Zampini

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