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The Battle of San Carlos Water

21st May 1982 ~ 21st May 2011


Peter Hunt


The Vision

In the early hours of 21st May 1982 the ships of Royal Navy Amphibious Task Group 317 charged with mounting “Operation Sutton”, the British liberation of the Falkland Islands after their occupation by the Argentines seven weeks before, sailed towards what was to be the largest air-sea battle since 1945.  On the port bridge wing of his flagship, HMS Fearless, Commodore Michael Clapp looked out at his mixed force of warships, amphibians and merchant ships, many of the latter still in their bright, peacetime colours. “For the millionth time...” he thought of all the things that had been done, that still were to be done, and could be done, and wondered if he had done them right.  Then he “...must have slipped into a form of involuntary daydream because I next saw a stream of people dressed in Elizabethan clothes drifting across my imagination.  I had no idea who they were (although I was certain that Drake was amongst them) but they gave encouragement by saying, “It’s always like this before the action and there is nothing to fear from the Don.””


Commodore Clapp dismissed his vision as the product of deep tiredness and worry, but he felt immensely boosted by it.  Peter Hunt’s vision was more prosaic.  I had all the ships for the Falklands/Malvinas in 1:3000 scale.  I had all the aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm, the Fuerza Aerea Argentina, and the Commando de Aviacion Naval Argentina (COAN) in 1:700 scale.  Saturday 21st May 2011 was one of the HKSW fortnightly meeting dates.  It had to be done …


The Game System


The bugbear of modern naval wargaming is the size of the battlespace.  Normally you are talking of hundreds of miles.  However, almost all of the action in the Battle of San Carlos took place within a space 20 miles by 15 miles into which were crammed the 18 ships of the invasion force.  About eight miles south of this box HMS Ardent was shelling Goose Green as part of the diversion plan for the operation.  Such a space should be available to any wargamer.  My “Handbrake” modern naval rules normally operate at 1” to 1 mile but for this battle we were able to triple the scale.  The game system described below can be played in conjunction with any set of tactical system you like.


The first attack happened at 0845hrs Zulu and the last 1406Z.  My rules use 20 minutes turns so this translates to 17 turns, not all of which see combat.  If you are using other modern naval rules, which typically use much shorter turns, then, rather that have an interminable number of turns, I suggest that you use 17 action” turns described below and develop some kind of bridging mechanism to your shorter combat turns when they happen.


The aim of the game was to recreate the balance, tempo and uncertainties of the battle without giving the players either too much historical latitude or introducing too many variables.  This was done by using a card based system to generate the raids and the intercepts.  Cards are, usually, discarded after play so the net effect will be to give the Argentines the same number of raids, and the British the same number of intercepts as really happened in the Battle, but not in the same order.


The British ships were disposed in their historical positions a shown here -----.  Throughout the day there were one or two CAPs, of two Sea Harriers (SHAR) each, patrolling to the North and South of the battle area, flying in from the Carrier Battle Group some 130 miles to the North-East.  However with no AEW and the Argentines attacking out of the radar “clutter” of West Falkland, British intercepts were by no means assured.


The decks of cards used to control the game are made up as follows:


Argentine Deck = 15 cards

Diamond Ace = Multiple raid with four flights.

Diamond J.Q.K. = Multiple raid with two flights.

Diamond 7, 8, 9, 10 = raid with single flight.

Diamond 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and Heart Q, K = All clear. No raid.


British Inbound intercept Deck = 17 cards

Spade A, K, Q = Intercepted.

Joker = Bombs by error.

Clubs A to K = Not intercepted.


British Outbound Intercept Deck = 14 cards

Spade J, 10, 9 = Intercepted.

Heart A –J = Safe Home!


So, shuffle up the decks and let play proceed.


Turn Sequence


The normal turn sequence is:

  • Draw a card to see if there is any raid.

  • If there is no raid move ships, conduct damage control, and proceed to next turn.

  • If there is a raid:

    • Determine the number of flights in the raid.  Place these aircraft on their approach routes.

    • Draw a card from the British inbound intercept deck for each incoming flight to see if it is intercepted.  If they are intercepted conduct air-to-air-combat.  If more than one aircraft of the incoming flight is shot down the others abort.

    • Survivors conduct air-to-ship strikes in order of the flight arrival.

    • Draw a card from the British outbound intercept deck for each outgoing flight to see if it is intercepted.  If it is, conduct air-to-air combat.

    • Move ships, conduct damage control, proceed to next turn.

Turns 1 and 2 are different because Lt Grippa’s MB339 arrives automatically on turn 1 and Pucara 1 flight arrives automatically on turn 2.  Do not draw from the Argentine deck on these two turns, but draw from the British decks as normal.


Argentine flights arrive in the order given below:


Call Sign


Turn #

Historical Notes

(Damaged caused and suffered)


1 X MB339 COAN


Negligible damage on Argonaut.

Pucara 1*

2 X Pucara



Diversion 1*

4 X Mirage III




2 X Dagger


Negligible damage on Antrim.


3 X Dagger


1 shot down by Sea Wolf.


3 X Dagger


Negligible damage on Brilliant.


3 X Dagger


Fire and systems hit (SAM) on Antrim.   Intercepted on exit with no loss.


3 X Pucara


1 shot down by Stinger.

1 shot down by SHAR on exit.


4 X A4


2 shot down by SHAR on entry.


2 X A4


Reduced flight from 4 A/C.

1 Bombs by error.


5 X A4


Systems hit (propulsion), and fire on Argonaut.

Diversion 2*

2 X Mirage III




4 X Dagger


Intercepted on entry by SHAR.

1 A/C shot down.  Others did not realise that they had been intercepted and proceeded to bomb Ardent, starting fire and systems hit (guns).


2 X Dagger




3 X Dagger


Intercepted on entry by SHAR.

All 3 shot down.




Critical hits, which later prove fatal, on Ardent. 

Intercepted on exit by SHAR.

3 shot down.


*      = not a real call sign.

#      = historical turn of arrival – you can use this for a more predicable game if you want.


Other Rules


The following rules add to the historical accuracy and local colour of the game.


Argentine Bombs


Because they were pressing their attacks at low level and their bombs did not have enough time to fuse properly, and because they were using old munitions, many Argentine bombs did not explode.  When a hit is achieved on a ship by an FAA flight deduct – 1 from the damage dice role, (in “Handbrake” terms this halves the chance of a critical hit and doubles the chance of negligible damage.  Adjust your own rules accordingly.)


The COAN used rockets on the MB 339 and retardant bombs on the A4s so they did not have this problem on 21st May.


Ardent Alone


HMS Ardent was alone to the South of the battle area. 


In Clapp’s words: "[s]he was a sitting duck” to air attack.  Place her alone on a separate bit of sea away from the battle area.  All Pucara strikes are directed at Ardent.  Any surviving bomb by error strikes are directed at Ardent if she is still alone.  Ardent finishes her bombardment and arrives at the south edge of the battle area on turn 14, 1300Z.  Ironically it was only then that her luck changed …



Mula Flight


Mula flight originally had 4 aircraft but two had to turn back.  Throw a D6 when Mula arrives.  On a 6 there are 4 A/C, on 5 there are 3, on a 4 or 3 there are 2, on a 2 there is only 1 A/C and on 1 no aircraft arrive.


Bombing by Error


South of the battle area lies the hulk of the Argentine supply ship Rio Carcarana which had been wrecked by the Fleet Air Arm five days earlier.  The Argentine pilots did not know of her location and reasonably thought that she was a British ship.  When the Joker is drawn, dice for each aircraft in the flight.  On a score of 1, 2 or 3 they bomb the Rio Carcarana.  On a 4, 5, or 6 they proceed up Falkland Sound to the battle area and will bomb Ardent if she is still alone, if not they enter from the south and attack normally.


Diversion Flights


The Mirage diversion flights were attempts to lure the SHAR CAPs into an air-to-air battle away from the battle area, allowing the Argentine attack aircraft free passage.  The British did not play.  If the British draw an intercept card on a diversion flight they replace it in the pack and shuffle.  As an optional rule if there is a diversion flight the British do not draw from their deck but throw a D6.  On a 1 the British intercept the diversion flight with two SHARs but do not draw any cards for other incoming flights.  On a 2 the British intercept the diversion with four SHARs but do not draw any cards for both incoming and outgoing flights.  On a 3-6 they draw from both decks as normal.


The British do not draw to intercept outbound diversion flights.


Attack Routes


Except for the Malvinas based Pucaras and MB339s the Argentine aircraft operating over the Falklands were at the very edge of their range.  Thus the diversion flights could not operate at low level, directly escorting the attack flights but had to fly at high level which was more economical.  The attack flights had limited approach routes, to the north and south of the islands, and further complicating their task the early flights took off from their mainland bases before the exact locations of the landings was known.  To reflect this Argentine aircraft are limited in their approach routes as follows:

  • Grippa approaches from the north.

  • Pucaras approach from the south, and will attack Ardent alone.  They will only proceed to the battle area if Ardent is sunk.

  • Leon to Perro flights approach from the south.

  • Pato to Tabanos flights may approach from the south, north or east.  Mark their chosen route (S, N or E) before a card is drawn on turn 3.

Northern approaches arrive on the north edge, over the sea and may:

  • Exit to the south over the sea.

  • Turn port into San Carlos Water and run down either the northern or the southern arm of the Water.  Exit to the east over land.

  • Turn port over the Sussex Mountains and run across both arms of the Water.  Exit to the north over land.

Southern approaches arrive at the south edge, over the sea and may:

  • Exit to the north over the sea.

  • Turn starboard into San Carlos Water and run down the either the northern or the southern arm of Water.  Exit to the east over land.

  • Turn starboard over the Sussex Mountains and run across both arms of the Water.  Exit to the north over land.

Eastern approaches arrive at the east edge, descend over the Verde Mountains and run down either arm of San Carlos Water.  Exit to the north over the sea.


Flights crossing the Sussex Mountains and attacking across the San Carlos Water had much less time to acquire targets, but, correspondingly, were exposed to AA fire for a shorter time too.  If attacking ships in the southern arm of San Carlos Water the flight commander can only designate whether he is attacking the northern or the southern part of the arm.  Throw a D6 and the score indicates which ship is attacked, starting from the north or the south as appropriate.  (e.g. The flight is attacking the south, the dice score is 3, so the third ship from the south is attacked.)  The attackers receive a –1 to their attack and defending ships in the Water receive a –1 to their defence.  (Using “Handbrake” rules the –1 equates to about a 25% reduction in effectiveness, adjust accordingly if using other rules.)  Note that flights attacking down the arms of the Water, or across the northern arm have none of these penalties.


On 21st May no flights attacked from the East, but later experience showed that they could have.  However such flights had a greater chance of being intercepted by the CAP, and would also have had to face the ground fire of the Marines and Paratroops who had already landed.  On the other hand they did not have to run the gauntlet of the warships in the sound outside the water before they bombed.  If a flight is approaching from the east draw two inbound intercept cards to it.  If one of these is an intercept conduct the air-to-air combat as normal and then shuffle the intercept card back into the deck.  If all three intercept cards have already been drawn before the flight arrives, shuffle one intercept and one non-intercept card back into the deck.  The intercept card is only valid if drawn against an eastern approach.


Stingers, Blowpipes, GPMGs and the Occasional Rapier


In addition to the Ardent bombarding Goose Green an SAS team was mounting a diversionary attack on the place.  These were armed with Stinger MANPADS.  Dice for each of the two Pucara flights before they arrive.  On a score of 4, 5 or 6 one Pucara is shot down by the SAS.


The Marines and Paratroops of the invasion force were equipped with Blowpipe MANPADS, GPMGs, and were working manfully to establish their Rapier SAMs in firing positions to defend the beachhead.  Flights attacking across or down San Carlos Water dice before, and/or after their attack as follows:

  • Flights arriving over Sussex Mountains lose 1 A/C before they attack on a score of 6.

  • Flights arriving over Verde Mountains lose 1 A/C before the attack on a score of 5 or 6.

  • Flights departing over land to the north or east lose 1 A/C after they attack on a score of 6.

The Great White Whale


The Canberra was painted white, like a hospital ship would have been, and, in “Sharkey” Ward’s words: “Without exception, the Argentine pilots were honourable men, and not one attacked what they thought was a sanctuary for the injured.” 


The Argentines may not attack the Canberra.  The Canberra may fire at Argentines …




Victory and Defeat


There are no real victory conditions for this game.  If you enjoy it, that should be satisfaction enough.  You may, from the safety of your armchair, compare your own performance to that of the real men who fought on 21st May 1982. 


The Argentines lost 12 aircraft out of 42 attack sorties.  British ships were hit eight times and ended the day with Ardent critically damaged, she would sink later, significant damage on Antrim and Argonaut, and negligible damage on Broadsword.  Both sides fought with honour and courage and in the final analysis the British won what turned out to be a strategic victory by securing the beachhead.  Drake did not reappear before Commodore Clapp, but he must have been looking on with pride …


21st May 2011


The game turned out to be quicker to play than I thought it would be, and Frankie Li and I got through it twice in the space of five hours, so we certainly got a lot of value out of it.


Frankie’s hard charging personality was well suited to the role of Argentine bomber pilot and he focussed on the transports. He sunk Antrim and Sir Geraint, significantly damaged Ardent and Sir Percivale, and caused negligible damage on Norland and Fearless, for the loss of 12 aircraft.


When it was my turn in the Dagger cockpits I focussed on the escorts to less effect, sinking Yarmouth and Antrim, causing significant damage on Ardent and negligible damage on Argonaut, for the loss of seven aircraft. Both games were tense but very enjoyable, whilst the results seemed well within the bounds of historical possibility. I think that there is a lot of mileage in this game and, no doubt, will return to San Carlos Water.



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