Without the bravery of the pilots of the Sea Harriers, Britain could not have launched an operation to retake the Falklands. But, according to their commander, they were victims of jealousy and ignorance. Nigel Burton reports.

THE two ground attack aircraft came in low to avoid radar detection by the British destroyer. The Argentine Pucaras were armed to the teeth and were closing at a fearsome rate.

As the ratings aboard HMS Antrim grew tense, a cool voice could be heard over the air traffic controller's headset: "Got them Sharkey! Looks like two Pucaras on the deck. About 15 degrees right of the nose."

It was the calm voice of a Sea Harrier pilot from HMS Invincible bearing down on the attackers as they approached the ship. Seconds later they heard the voice of another pilot, Commander Nigel "Sharkey" Ward as he joined the fray: "Got one visual now. I'll attack from his six (o'clock position)."

Two other Sea Harriers opened up with their cannons, the bullets ripping up the ground behind the enemy but just going wide of the target.

Commander Ward took his time and closed in astern of the screaming fighters, which were hugging the ground. He waited, waited and suddenly, there was one of the Pucaras dead in the middle of his gunsights. Gently he squeezed the trigger. The aircraft gave its familiar shudder as the 30-mm cannon shells left the two barrels. A split second later they found their target.

The Pucara's right engine burst into flames and then the Harrier shells impacted the left aileron, nearly sawing off the wing tip. Splash one enemy aircraft, the crew of HMS Antrim could breathe again.

On the whole it had been a very good day, especially for the beach head landings in San Carlos Bay. But worse days were to come when, for all the bravery of the Harrier pilots and the men aboard the warships, Argentine pilots did manage to get through and deliver their bombs.

Sharkey Ward believes that should never have happened.

The reason it did, according to his new book, Sea Harrier Over The Falklands, was the result of ignorance on behalf of the task force commanders and, more seriously, rivalry between the naval air squadrons aboard HMS Invincible and Hermes.

As he explains: "Neither the carrier battle group nor the amphibious group personnel or planners knew or understood the respect that the Argentine had for the Sea Harrier. I had been very open in pre-war Press statements about the Sea Harrier's excellent combat capabilities but this propaganda did not reach (or was ignored by) those in Hermes who were taking 800 Squadron Sea Harriers during the campaign.

"As a result, we had two Sea Harrier air groups that were employed quite differently and it was agreed by Hermes that HMS Invincible and my squadron (801) were to take the lead on air defence - while the Hermes air group would be biased towards ground/surface attack."

Ward says Hermes took these instructions so close to heart that she ignored signals that required her Harriers to help defend the task force. These combat air patrols (CAPs) formed the "up threat" barrier through which enemy aircraft would have to pass in order to reach the fleet.

Ward is damning in his assessment of the way Hermes' Harriers were used. He says: "Eight hundred squadron had not learned how to get the best out of their air-to-air radar and had not learned how to align their navigation and weapon system platforms. So, to most personnel in Hermes, the Sea Harrier radar was "useless" and the plane's navigation system was "unreliable/unusable."

The result of this split was a fundamental difference in the way each carrier deployed its aircraft. Ward claims the larger carrier's lack of faith in the Sea Harrier's radar meant a similar suspicion of using a combat air patrol to intercept enemy fighters.

"This was very evident on May 4 when the southerley CAP station was "purloined" by Hermes and sent off on a wild goose chase looking visually for non-surface contacts - which could easily have been verified on the aircraft radar from the vicinity of the CAP station."

While that aircraft was chasing ghosts, an enemy Super Etendard flew through the gap and fired the Exocet missile that sank HMS Sheffield.

Secondly, Hermes' aircraft were directed to return onboard with no less than 2,000lbs of fuel remaining. In contrast, Ward's pilots were forbidden by him to return onboard Invincible with more than 800lbs of fuel. This allowed his pilots to spend 20 minutes longer in the air defending the fleet.

But Ward is most scathing of the way Hermes pilots preferred to sit above the air battle waiting to be called down when the amphibious force in San Carlos was under attack.

"Whilst 801 Squadron Sea Harriers were at 250ft, "up threat" of San Carlos on their designated CAP station, 800 Squadron would sit at 20,000ft over the cove. On three occasions this policy cost us dear."

He cites the sinking of HMS Coventry, the destruction of HMS Ardent and the bombing of the Sir Tristram/Sir Galahad troop carriers. In the Coventry's case enemy aircraft were able to sneak through a gap left in the air defences because Hermes' Sea Harriers were circling too high. The same thing happened to the Ardent; the high level fighters arrived too late to prevent the Argentines' death blow.

When the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were mauled, enemy fighters were only engaged after they had attacked - not before.

According to Ward this policy was the same as saying: "Come and beat the s**t out of our ships, but stand by because after you have done your business we shall try to knock you down."

That said, pilots aboard HMS Hermes undoubtedly acquitted themselves with honour during the fighting. And the direction not to land aboard with more than 800lbs of fuel led to some hairy moments, not least when Ward himself landed with little more than fumes in the tanks of his Sea Harrier after a particularly busy day. It could easily have led to the loss of a precious fixed wing aircraft.

The last word, though, should go to Ward who says clearer thinking could have reduced losses and recovered the Falklands sooner. "Had the command in the Falklands understood the Sea Harrier and its capabilities better, the aircraft could undoubtedly have been used to greater effect and the war might well have been a less costly affair. In my view, it needn't have been 'A damned near run thing'."

Sea Harrier Over The Falklands by Commander 'Sharkey' Ward (Cassell, £8.99.) ISBN: 978-0-3043-5542-6

Tomorrow: Saved by six duff bomb