The Overstretched British Fleet 21st – 25th May 1982

Once British forces had been landed at San Carlos, the Task Force commander Admiral Woodward was faced with the problem of trying to provide air defence for the beachhead whilst keeping his aircraft carriers out of range of Argentinian jets armed with ship-killing Exocets.

In his book, 'One Hundred Days : Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group  Commander', the Admiral described how important the real aircraft carriers, Hermes and Invincible, were to the success of the campaign. He noted that he had agreed with the British command at Northwood (London) that the recapture of the Falklands would have to be abandoned if one of the aircraft carriers was lost as there would be insufficient air cover to carry on. As a pertinent statistic, Hermes alone was crammed with more key personnel than the whole population of the Falkland Islands as well as having half of the Harriers on board.

Before the British landings started, each of the two aircraft carriers had protected by one of the latest frigates armed with 'Sea Wolf' missiles. These missiles were capable of destroying Exocets in flight. The two frigates became known as ‘goalkeepers’ . Their mission was simple. They were to stick close by the carriers and either destroy incoming missiles or be destroyed by them. 

After the landings, this changed. One of the ‘goalkeepers’, HMS Brilliant, was sent into San Carlos to help protect shipping from attacks by bomber aircraft. She sustained slight damage and her weapons systems went down so she was withdrawn back to the carrier group for repairs. The other ‘goalkeeper’, HMS Broadsword, was sent on picket duties with HMS Conventry to draw Argentinian attacks away from the landing sites. This left the aircraft carriers without their missile protection and Admiral Woodward decided to keep the carriers well to the east of the Falklands out, as he had been advised, of range of missile attack.  The distance also meant his Harriers had further to go before engaging aircraft attacking the landing site. This attracted criticism in the British press and amongst the crews of ships bearing the brunt of these attacks.

The admiral also described (in his book) how he employed MoD owned support ships as missile decoys to help protect his carriers from harm: 

"Ranged in a north-south line facing west, the fleet auxiliaries [civilian manned MoD owned support ships] formed what I hoped was some kind of 'chaff' wall in case of incoming threat. In the most brutal terms, I could afford to lose a big merchant ship, or even a tanker, a whole lot more than I could afford to lose a carrier."