The naval combat in the Falklands War of 1982 was hugely influential for today’s fleets as it reinforced just how hard modern ASW is, underlined the relevance of light aircraft carriers (England was set to dispose of them before the conflict), pointed out the danger of aluminum superstructures (although this is now falling on deaf ears it seems), and highlighted the nightmare of fighting even laughable quantities of anti-ship missiles.
Another thing it did was point out that naval gunfire support for ground combat troops operating in the littoral was still very relevant.
With the British deploying two light brigades (3 Commando and 5 Guards including three Royal Marine Commando battalions, two Para battalions, and a battalion of the Scots Guards, another of the Welsh Guards, and a Gurkha battalion) to retake the islands from upwards of 10,000 Argentines, the Brits had very little in the way of organic artillery the task force was able to bring with them 8,000 miles south.
While the Argies had access to modern 155mm guns, the Brits were handicapped with only five batteries of 105mm light howitzers (three from 29 Commando and two from 4th Field Artillery) which, with a precious handful of helicopters on hand, were slow to move forward to support the front line.
For instance, in one operation against Goose Green, where the Argentines had 30 guns emplaced and well-supplied, just 12 RN Sea King sorties were allocated to move artillery forward enabling 28 British artillerymen, three guns, and 1,000 shells to stage for the battle.
Likewise, the 40 or so Harriers flying from two carriers offshore had their hands full with attempting to secure local air superiority and could divert precious few sorties to support the Marines, Paras, and Guards ashore.
Capable of delivering a 55-pound HE shell to targets up to 18,000 yards away (24,000 for the longer Mark 8), they also had a very high rate of fire, with even the older guns capable of 12-14 rounds per minute. With these small warships (most of the frigates hit 2,500-3,250 tons while the destroyers only went about 5,000) often still able to carry 800 to 1,000 shells in their magazines and able to operate in as little as five fathoms of seawater, they were called inshore to deliver the goods.
At Goose Green, HMS Arrow (F173) fired 22 pre-dawn Mk 8 star shells and 135 rounds of 4.5-inch HE in the course of a 90-minute bombardment. She would have fired more had her gun not jammed and put her out of action.
Dubbed Operation Tornado by the Royal Navy, individual frigates and destroyers were soon dispatched on nightly gun runs to plaster Argentine positions with harassment and interdiction fire (H&I) then fall back to the relative safety of deep water during the day. In their mission, they received shot correction from buried and heavily camouflaged commando patrols from SAS and SBS as well as ANGLICO teams from 148 Battery. Slated for disbandment just before the Falklands, the 30 or so gunners and observers of 148 (Meiktila) Battery Royal Artillery proved invaluable, calling very accurate fire down on Argentine bunkers, trenches, and guns.
At first, the “strafe” would only send less than 200 rounds downrange but this would soon double and even triple, with as many as 750 shells being the norm three weeks into the campaign.
One Argentine remembered after the war:
We were very demoralized at that time because we felt so helpless. We couldn’t do anything. The English were firing at us from their frigates and we couldn’t respond.
HMS Yarmouth (F101), an older modified Type 12 frigate laid down in 1957, fired over 1,000 shells from her main guns (twin 4.5s), mostly during shore bombardment that included supporting the Scots Guards during the Battle of Mount Tumbledown.
Her sister ship, the circa-1958 HMS Plymouth (F126) fired 909 4.5 inch shells and was the first British warship to enter liberated Port Stanley harbor.
In one harassment mission of Port Stanley’s airport, the destroyer HMS Cardiff (D108) fired 277 shells.
Besides shore bombardment runs, the frigate HMS Alacrity (F174) used her 4.5-inch gun to engage and sink the 3,000-ton Argentine supply ship ARA Isla de los Estados, which blew up after a hit ignited her cargo of jet fuel and ammunition. Likewise, Yarmouth intercepted and engaged the Argentine coaster ARA Monsunen with her twin 4.5 guns west of Lively Island, driving her aground.
These offshore bombardment missions also enabled the RN to set up Mirage/Skyhawk traps by taking a Type 42 destroyer delivering NGFS ashore and adding a Type 22 frigate to it which stood a further 10-20 miles out to sea. The idea was that the Type 42’s 4.5-incher would bring out an Argentine airstrike the next morning, which would be downed by the combined Sea Dart/Sea Wolf missiles of the two warships. This was known as a Type 64 group and was credited with bagging at least two Argentine Sky Hawks.
The missions, close to shore, proved dangerous. On 12 June 1982, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan (D19) was attacked with an MM38 Exocet missile, fired from an improvised shore-based launcher just after she supported the Royal Marines’ capture of the Two Sisters hill outside of Stanley. The Exocet claimed 14 of Glamorgan’s crew.
Nonetheless, the mission continued.
The frigate HMS Ambuscade (F172), according to her war diary, fired 58 rounds in the area of Port Stanley airfield on 30 May, went back for a second run on the night of 7/8 June during which she fired 104 shells. On the night of 13 June, the frigate fired 228 4.5-inch shells in support of 2 Para’s assault of Wireless Ridge in company with fellow tin cans HMS Active (220 rounds fired) and HMS Avenger (100 rounds fired). Not bad considering Ambuscade suffered from a cracked hull and broken stabilizers throughout the war.
Sadly, the only British civilian casualties of the Falklands War came from naval bombardment, with the frigate HMS Avenger (F185) landing shells on a residence just outside Argentine-occupied Port Stanley, killing three locals and wounding several others. The forward observer had not been aware of their presence in the area and, in post-war analysis, it was found that the ships’ gun beacon MIP radar malfunctioned and was set on the wrong datum.
In all, some 8,000 4.5-inch shells were fired by Royal Navy escorts during the two-month Falklands Islands conflict, compared to some 17,000 105mm shells lit off by the Army’s gunners. In many cases, the larger naval shells, fitted with proximity fuses that detonated them 10 yards off the deck rather than after they were buried in the soggy sub-polar moss of the Falklands landscape, were considered more effective.
Still, the lesson was learned and the Batch 3 Type 22 frigates, constructed after the Falklands, were designed to carry 4.5-inch guns whereas their preceding classmates were missile-only. Further, instead of disbanding, the elite forward observers of 148 Battery are still very much active as part of the Commando Gunners of 29 Commando.
Importantly, the Royal Navy today still mounts 4.5s on all of their frigates and destroyers– a factor the U.S. Navy, with its preference for a 57mm main gun on everything smaller than an Aegis destroyer, could probably learn from.
For more information on artillery used in the Falklands, see the relevant section in Firepower in Limited War by Robert Scales and the 27-page scholarly paper Under Fire: The Falklands War and the Revival of Naval Gunfire Support by Steven Paget.