1 May 1982- The Curtain Rises
The first day of May brought the first major combat operations of the Falklands War. The first strike was by the British. In the first of a series of raids called “Black Buck”, an RAF Avro Vulcan bomber, operating from Ascension Island, and with tanker support, dropped twenty-one 1000lb bombs on Stanley airfield in a pre-dawn attack, an attempted coup de main. It failed to fully render the airfield inoperable (indeed, throughout the campaign, it would continue to operate) but it did some damage, and dispelled the foolish Argentine notion that a negotiated settlement was possible.
Following close on the heels of the Black Buck raid, a strike by ten Harriers from HMS Hermes and Invincible hit Stanley airfield and the small strip at Goose Green. Because the Argentinians had failed to improve Stanley airfield for use as a base for its Skyhawks and Daggers, the British were able to launch from a mere 70 miles away. Almost simultaneously, a three ship detachment from the task force closed within 6 miles of shore and began shelling Argentinian installations ashore.
So the Argentinians knew the British were in Falklands waters. What they didn’t know was precisely where. They launched a series of counterstrikes against the Harriers and the main body of the task force, but most jets were unable to locate targets and had to return to base without ever contributing anything to the battle. The task force was far enough from the Argentine mainland that strikes could only reach it with air to air refueling. But Argentina only had two KC-130 tankers, capable only supporting a handful of strike aircraft. Rather than being able to overwhelm British defenses, they instead mounted a dribble of strikes, many of which flailed around in a futile attempt to find the British. The Argentine Skyhawks and Super Etendards could refuel in the air, but the Mirages could not. The extreme range, and lack of tanker support meant that the Harriers would almost always meet the Argentinians on roughly equal numerical terms.
The three ships shelling facilities in the islands were another matter. Argentine jets knew just where to find them. Daggers from the mainland mounted the first of many strikes against British ships in close waters. One British ship sustained minor damage. Another flight attempting to attack the main body was intercepted by Harriers, and promptly lost two jets to AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles. A third jet, attempting to land at Stanley for a fuel emergency was shot down by friendly fire.
A second strike on the ships shelling the islands, by Canberra bombers, was turned back with one Canberra lost, and one badly damaged.
Incredibly, the Argentinians thought they had done quite well. They were confident that they’d inflicted heavy damage on one ship, and shot down five Harriers. In reality, they’d lightly damaged one ship, and made superficial damage to one Harrier.
The war had begun. Bombs were falling, and men were dying. But only in small numbers. The next day would be the single bloodiest day of the entire war (Part 11).