A Homeland Day

Zampini Diego

May 25 is the «Homeland Day», one of the National Days of the Argentine Republic, due to on May 25 1810 a Junta fully integrated by Creole members, not ruled by any Spanish Viceroy, was elected in Buenos Aires (It is known in Argentine history as the First Junta of Government). That was the first step of the process that finally ended in the Declaration of Independence on July 9 1816 (July 9 is the other Argentine National Day, the «Independence Day»).

On May 25 1982, during the Malvinas/Falklands War, all the pilots of the 5th Fighter Group of the FAA (Fuerza Aérea Argentina: Argentine Air Force) felt that it would be a very special day. In the words of one of the pilots, Captain (today Vicecommodore) Pablo Marcos Rafael Carballo:

«May 25 1982. That was a very special day due to many causes. The first one is because it was one more anniversary of our Homeland, and we could celebrate it the best way: defending the most beautiful flag of the world. The second one was that a series of negative news had caused many people to lose their faith. The third one was that the whole world had started to talk about the Argentine pilots, and that was very stimulating for us.»

The main target of the 5th Group was a couple of British ships placed north to Pebble Island: the destroyer HMS Coventry and the frigate HMS Broadsward. They were acting as early warning against Argentine air strikes to the British ships in San Carlos. Both ships, especially the Coventry, had seen much action since the first days of May. On May 3, the antisubmarine helicopter of the ship -the Lynx HAS.2 XZ242- had attacked an Argentine patrol boat, ARA Alferez Sobral with two antiship missiles Sea Skua, hitting both of them the Argentine ship. The ship survived, despite another successful attack with Sea Skuas — this time performed by the Lynx of the HMS Glasgow. On May 9 the Coventry shot down an SA.330L Puma helicopter belonging to the 601st Combat Aviation Battalion of the Argentine Army with a SAM Sea Dart, killing all the members of the crew. That same day the destroyer launched three more Sea Darts against an Argentine C-130 Hercules, but she missed them all. Since May 14 both ships (Coventry and Broadsward) took the role of Air Early Warning (AEW), and certainly the destroyer and the frigate became a «missiles trap», shooting down two Skyhawks on the very May 25, being the first one the A-4B C-244 of the 5th Group -piloted by Captain Hugo del Valle Palaver- and the second one the A-4 °C C-304 of the 4th Group. The crews of both planes were killed. Such an extraordinary performance created a «blood debt» with the FAA (especially with the 5th Group); and the Coventry would pay the price for her achievements.

The intention of the Argentine command was to send two flights (with three A-4B Skyhawks each) of the 5th Group to attack the Coventry and Broadsward about 14:00 hs. For that reason, during all the morning the ground personnel in Río Gallegos Air Base prepared the aircraft which would participate in the sorties. The British ships were under continue surveillance by the Argentine observers placed in Isla Borbón (Pebble island), and they were found at 15 miles north to Pebble Island. Due to their relative proximity to the continent, it was decided that the air refuelling would not be necessary and, even more, all the Skyhawks would carry three bombs of 454 kgs (1,000 pounds), a war load normally not possible.

«Zeus» and «Vulcano»

It was originally planned that six aircraft would attack the British ships, divided in two flights of three Skyhawks each one, lead respectively by Captain Pablo Carballo and 1st Lt. Mariano Velasco. Unfortunately, the original plan proved to be impossible to be accomplished intact: few minutes before the take-off, Ensign Carmona’s plane -one of Carballo’s wingmen- suffered technical failures that forced it to keep grounded and later, after the take-off of the remaining five planes, one of the pilots of Velasco’s flight, Lt. Ossés, reported that his plane was also suffering technical troubles, and turned back to Río Gallegos. The war actions and the lack of spare pieces had caused a great attrition in the Argentine Skyhawks.

After that, the strike team being reduced to four A-4Bs divided in two flights: «Vulcano», integrated by Captain Pablo Carballo and Lt. Carlos Rinke; and «Zeus», formed by 1st Lt. Mariano Velasco and Ensign Jorge «Bam-Bam» Barrionuevo. They were supported by a guiding plane (an Hawker-Siddeley HS-125), callsign «Rayo» («Ray»). Carballo remember the «getting-in» travel:

«I started to fly grazing over the sea, which has no other unevenness than the waves, towards the area north to Gran Malvina Island [Note of Author: Western Falkland]. Lieutenant Rinke, my 'Numeral de Hierro' ('Iron Wingman'), as I liked to call him, was flying at my left and slightly behind and below, almost touching the sea.

Suddenly I heard that 'Ranquel' (Vicecommodore Arturo Pereyra) communicate to me: 'Wacht out that there is a CAP of Harriers coming in from the south through San Carlos Strait!' [Falkland Sound in English cartography]. I gave him the Roger and I estimated that I could reach my target without being intercepted, so I decided to go on. Later, I would be told by this officer (Pereyra), that the patrol of enemy planes was flying over the frigates until only three minutes before our attack.»

In fact, the CAP of Sea Harriers -integrated by Lt. Cdr. Neil Thomas and Lt. David Smith- were aware of the presence of the Argentine planes, but were ordered to leave the area for their own protection, because the Sea Wolf SAM system of the Broadsward had also detected the Argentine planes, and could accidentally lock one of the Sea Harriers.

Fortune Smiles at Both Sides, or the Broadsward Miracle
As the Argentine warplanes were reaching the area, they were also entering into the range of Sea Wolf missiles. But the decisson of Carballo and Rinke to fly very close to each other (either accidentally or intentionally) was very fortunate for them, for the Sea Wolf system was well known at that time because of putting itself off line if it could not distinguish the targets. And that was what happened in that occassion: as soon the system tried to lock onto the Argentine aircraft, shut itself down, leaving the HMS Broadsward defenseless. Of course, Carballo did not know about the British’s troubles, and in fact he was having his own troubles:

«They were two imponent frigates that could be clearly seen on the horizon, surrounded by a light mist, far from the coast, deep into the sea, and I told myself: It will be a hard job, because we will be a long time exposed to their artillery! They were a Type 42 [destroyer] and a Type 22 [frigate], the most modern and powerful ones of all the English Fleet.

I engaged maximum thrust, I pressed the VHF button, I shouted: '¡Viva la Patria!' ('Long Live our Homeland!') and I started my final attack run. […]. My wingman ask me: 'Which one shall we attack, Sir?'. I told him: 'Let’s go for the one behind, which has less defenses!'

I remember that in the exact moment when I dropped my bombs the other ship was still firing at me. […] When I saw the ship’s siloutte at both sides of my windshield, I pressed the trigger and 'released it' -as we say- taking a little more time than the usual due to my poor visual.

Immediately I asked: 'Are you OK, #2?' and I heard with great happiness his shout: 'Yes, Sir. Here I am, behind you and at your sight!'

What were the consequences of the attack? According to British sources, the first Skyhawk (Carballo) dropped a bomb which bounced several times in the water and finally hit the ship in the flight deck of the helicopter. The bomb did not explode, but destroyed the nose of the antisubmarine helicopter Lynx HAS.2, leaving it off service for the rest of the war. The bomb passed throught the ship and sunk into the sea without exploding! Certainly the story would have been very different if that bomb had detonated, and also both sides were very fortunate to survive without losses.

The drawing shows the A-4B Skyhawks of Captain Pablo Carballo and Lieutenant Carlos Rinke leaving the combat zone after their attack against the frigate HMS «Broadsward», and also shows -in the distance- the Skyhawks piloted by First Lieutenant Mariano Velasco and Ensign Jorge Barrionuevo seconds after hitting the destroyer HMS «Coventry» with their bombs, causing her the damages which would eventually sink her (Illustration by Captain (Res) Ezequiel Martínez, as appeared in the book «Dios y los Halcones»).

The End of the HMS Coventry

But the other British ship, the HMS Coventry, was not so lucky; «Zeus» flight was arriving to the area, and this time Fortune entirely smiled at the Argentinians: the CAP of Sea Harriers asked for permission to intercept them, but due to the Broadsward had detected the second pair of Argentine planes and had locked-on the new targets, their offer was rejected. Meanwhile, the Captain of the destroyer HMS Coventry, David Hart-Dyke, after having seen the attack performed by Carballo and Rinke, ordered the ship to maneuver so to protect -as he thought- the defenseless frigate by putting bravely his own ship between the damaged frigate and the new group of attackers.
Unfortunately, such a manouver left the antennas of the destroyer between the Broadsward’s radar antenna and the attacking Skyhwaks, interrupting the adquisition of the targets by the Sea Wolf system. The HMS Coventry had a lock on the targets and fired a SAM Sea Dart against the Argentine planes, but Mariano Velasco and Jorge Barrionuevo saw the launching with enough anticipation and set themselves in a very grazling flight (less than 10 meters — 30 feet over the surface of sea). The missile lost the adquisition, and could be easily evaded by the Argentine pilots. The Coventry, seeing herself as the new target of the planes, tried to swerve to starboard to expose her less vulnerable flank to the Skyhawks. But it was too late; as Captain Carballo wrote in his book:

«Almost instantly I heard another voice in the frequency that said: 'I got the target and I am coming in!'; they were 'Cobra' and 'Pampa' who were starting their attack run [Note of the Author: 'Cobra' and 'Pampa' were the individual callsigns of Mariano Velasco and Jorge Barrionuevo respectively]. […].

A second later I heard the leader to ask the usual 'Are you OK, #2?', and he replied: 'Yes, Sir! and you hit her! I saw your bombs hitting against the ship’s hull, and I also saw black smoke getting out from the another ship!'

We all started to scream at the same time while they were still firing, but the splashes seemed to be much far from us. We shouted '¡Viva la Patria!' until a voice, I guess that the one belonging to Vicecommodore 'Rough Guy' Pereyra, in the plane 'Rayo', called us to the order saying: 'Keep quiet on the radio!'.»
When 1st Lt. Mariano Velasco performed his final run with his A-4B Skyhawk serial number C-207, dropped three bombs of 454 kg (1,000 pounds) at 14:21 hs. against the HMS Coventry, hitting all of them the ship in a 45 degrees angle. The bombs penetrated deep inside the ship, and exploded with a tremendous strenght: the Argentine revenge had reached the destroyer of the proud Royal Navy and had caused a deadly wound. The ship was abandoned at 14:48 and finally sunk around 15:22 hs. The wreckage caused 22 British sailors dead and the loss of an antisubmarine Lynx helicopter (the XZ242). The Blood Debt of the Coventry with the FAA had been payed.

The Argentine Homeland Day was disastrous for the Britons: that very day another British ship, the giant cargo ship MV Atlantic Conveyor was sunk by anti-ship missiles Exocet fired by two Argentine Super Etendards of the 2nd Fighter and Strike Airnaval Squadron of the Argentine Navy, causing the loss of tents for 5,000 men, at least 10 cargo helicopters Chinook and Wessex, 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.

The lesson that could be extracted from this, and that should be taught to any Power, is: Never attack a country when its National Day is coming closer, even when that country could belong to the «Third World», because patriotism is a very dangerous weapon.




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