Dear readers, as my own Falklands War project “The First Casualty – The untold story of the Falklands War” comes ever closer to being released, I find myself inexorably more drawn towards some of this fascinating war’s greatest myths and mysteries…and there really are a great many. None, however, seems to come up as often as the incident known in the military history world as “The Invincible Myth” – the idea that the British aircraft Carrier HMS Invincible was sunk, the many deaths covered up and – incredibly – that a new carrier was built and substituted in its place. Now, being a serious military historian, I can tel you straight that the answer is no. The Invincible was not attacked, it was not damaged and it most certainly was not sunk! Believe me, I have stood on the deck of Invincible back in 1985 and I didn’t get my feet wet. I was also in Portsmouth, not the South Atlantic! – However, the fact that HMS Invincible was still afloat just a few years ago seems not to answer the rumour-mongers and I have decided to take myself – and the reader back to ‘History 101’ which is to consider and weight ALL evidence, omit nothing and come up with the answer.
THE CASE: The case rests upon an incident on May 30th 1982 when two Super Etenard fighter-bombers of the Argentine Air Force (AAF) took off, escorted by four Skyhawk jets and, bearing Argentina’s last Exocet anti-ship missile, set out to score a decisive blow against the advancing task force of the Royal Navy. The two pilots of the Etenards later reported having deployed the missile and – through a number of varying reports, the story has emerged that Invincible was struck first by the Exocet and then by two 500lb bombs and was left a smoking wreck. Some accounts state that she was sunk, others that she was damaged, some accounts say that she was repaired at sea, others that she was refloated and repaired at sea and the third – and (somehow) most widely believed, is that she was sunk and a new carrier built to cover the loss….there are a lot of hypotheses to combat here! Well, let’s try!!
THE OFFICIAL REPORT: The first piece of evidence (and seemingly considered the most credible) is that of the pilots. Once the two Super Etenards had deployed the missile, they at once turned and headed for base, leaving the bomb-equipped Skyhawks to follow up the attack. Ensign Gerardo Isaac, one of the escorting Skyhawk pilots later recounted that;
“A minute later, I saw something in front of us, unmistakably enormous and majestic. We were approaching the stern of the Invincible. I called the flight leader…’The aircraft carrier is in front of us!’ – We began the attack, two from each side. As we were getting near, smoke began to come out from both sides of the tower, caused by the impact of the Exocet, and this became more and more dense. about thirteen kilometres out, I saw an explosion on my left; that was First Lieutenant Vasquez’s plane shot down. Lieutenant Ureta was now the leader, with Lieutenant Castillo and me on each side. We were almost there – about two kilometres from the target – when another explosion hit Castillo’s plane and the shock wave shook my aircraft. I angrily pressed my gun button. When I reached the target, it was already covered in smoke. Its bulk covered everything in front of me; I pressed the bomb release and made a turn so as not to crash into the tower, which was still concealed by the smoke. The leader also released his bomb in front of me. as I departed, the aircraft carrier had completely lost its shape; it was just a cloud of smoke in the middle of the sea. Then we reached the coast and landed. The runway was full of people – there were tears, congratulations, embraces, questions and more tears…”
Wow, that sounds powerful, huh? It seems right now that HMS Invincible was indeed struck by an Exocet missile, two 500lb bombs and even a full ammunition count (Isaac stated he was out of ammunition after the attack) of 400 rounds of 20mm cannon fire….it certainly sounds credible when we read his words and, if we consider the damage that must have caused, it was certainly enough to sink or seriously cripple a small aircraft carrier and cause massive, indeed horrendous casualties. Well sadly for Ensign Isaac….it simply didn’t happen.
THE BRITISH REPORT: Every story has two sides, of course, and (as we do in “The First Casualty”) I will show both sides of the story. Firstly, the British warships were certainly well aware of the approaching aircraft and the Exocet having been deployed although their radars detected the force coming directly towards the screen of Type 42 destroyers and not as designed, towards the rear of the task force. t had been a 700-mile mission for the Argentine pilots and, in foul weather and with less accurate guidance systems, they had approached too far to the east. The Type 21 frigate HMS Avenger was actually out on the lead and, as other ships and nearby helicopters deployed missiles and chaff, she turned and opened up with her 4.5 inch main gun. The Exocet missile was seen to run out of fuel and crash into the sea and one of the shot down Skyhawks plummeted into the sea next to Avenger from where some wreckage, documents and even the remains of the pilot were recovered. Two Argentine aircraft had been shot down, their last Exocet had tumbled into the sea and the Invincible was still 30 nautical miles away…the report is corroborated by 170 sailors from the Avenger hundreds more from other nearby ships and, critically, by 1,100 men on the Invincible to include sailors, airmen, the entire British press (never ones to keep silent even when they should) and His Royal Highness Prince Andrew…and every single one of them is still alive…this is a major hole in Ensign Isaac’s story! An aircraft carrier packed with men, fuel, munitions, not to mention just under half of Britain’s aircraft, all of which were still intact at the end…well how does that happen?
MEANWHILE IN ARGENTINA: Here is where the story starts to break down, you see, Isaac initially never even claimed to have sunk the Invincible or to have bombed it. The colourful story seen above only grew out of the myth many years later into what it is today. So what really happened? Well the second the pilots landed, they were first hurriedly spirited away to an office by Air Force officers. Twice previously the Invincible had been claimed as sunk (along with other ships which never were as we shall see) and now the junta needed some good news. Lt. Commander Philippi, a naval pilot present in the debriefing recalled how both pilots, shaken, exhausted and in tears at first said that that they could not identify the target. Shown a Royal Navy look-book to jog their memories, again both pilots initially failed to identify the target, merely stating that they saw some smoke, however after some urging, (and considering that Invincible was, after all, the intended target) they eventually conceded that it might, indeed, have potentially been the Invincible – at once the senior officers dashed from the room and announced that the Invincible was sunk, a press conference was called, a public announcement made, the newspapers given the story (stating to the world that Invincible had been sunk and Prince Andrew was killed!) and the ‘heroes’ hoist onto the shoulders of their comrades and the public – a position from which it was now impossible to climb down as Argentina rejoiced.
Purely as evidence we must question this; the Argentine pilot who, according to the official story was so close to the Invincible that he announced her by name and even nearly flew into her control tower, seemingly could not identify her in two hours or more of interrogation and only later when heavily prompted by those saying “It was Invincible wasn’t it? This one? This one here? Invincible, right?” – For a man who later claimed he nearly crashed into it to initially claim he hadn’t seen it…well it’s obvious. He didn’t.
IN THE PRESS: The Argentine press at once came up with a number of ‘spoofed’ photographs designed to improve their case, but sadly this did more to discredit the story than anything else, particularly when the originals were found. We should not be surprised; this was now the third time that Invincible had been claimed as sunk, they had claimed the troop ship SS Canberra twice (with an awful ‘photograph’ showing it being attacked by an F-86 Sabre jet which Argentina didn’t have, and also another report from a pilot who confirmed it) and even the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes had been claimed with two quite awful artists’ drawings and an ‘official photograph’ shown in the Argentine press which most people instantly recognised as the famous picture of the USS Wasp during the battle of Midway in 1942. In all, the press campaign did more to harm the case than support it.
The famous altered photograph shown in Argentina, proclaiming the Invincible as sunk:
And the original:
Argentine press was quick to seize upon the story that Invincible had been sunk:
OTHER SHIPS CLAIMED – HERMES AND CANBERRA:
The picture which circulated around Argentine purporting to show a damaged HMS Hermes. The picture is the world famous image of the USS Wasp during the battle of Midway September 1942 yet many were still convinced:
Another image purporting to show a successful attack upon Hermes…this time with lasers bu the looks of it! Attached is supposedly an intercepted transmission, although the Argentine aircraft had no method of intercepting British transmissions:
A final picture of the alleged attack upon Hermes on May 1st 1982…this time by a Pucara. Creative license is rife here. Naturally the attack did not happen, and yet we see another pilot, Daniel Judic, absolutely assert that he successfully attacked the ship. Argentina now officially denies the incident, still this myth also persists:
An image supposedly from May 24th 1982 showing what was declared to be a successful attack upon the troop ship SS Canberra…by a Sabre jet! Argentina had no Sabre jets. One can only deal with this evidence incredulously, yet Canberra was claimed as sunk not once, but twice:
Another pilot’s official statement that he sank the Canberra and again officially denied by Argentina (the Canberra brought the Argentine troops home after their surrender in the Falklands) – how much value can we therefore put on a pilot’s testimony? None:
PROBLEMS WITH INVINCIBLE: A few days after the attack, HMS Invincible hung back from the main theatre of warfare whilst engineers performed a turbine change. She had been moving on full power for over six weeks and the repair took her out of active service for several days. In Argentina this was seen as further proof that the ship was indeed critically damaged. I can tell you I have spoken to the engineers who fixed the turbine who stated that it was nothing more than that, and a pretty standard routine change-over. Soon the war was over and, with the Falklands liberated but Argentina refusing to accept defeat and declare an armistice (even though all fighting had stopped), Invincible stayed in position as the task force began to return home, just in case. Oddly it seemed that the biggest problem in declaring peace was Galtieri’s refusal to accept the repatriation of his soldiers on board the Canberra – a ship which the junta’s press had already declared as sunk twice. Eventually he had to bow to the inevitable and allow the troops home on the Canberra – the myth of that ship was dissolved, as eventually was that of Hermes but someone somewhere decided that the story of Invincible would stay. Her extended stay on guard in the Falklands was seen as further proof that she was at least out of action and not on guard, and eventually over August 28/29 her newly-constructed sister ship Illustrious came to relieve her and the Invincible sailed for home.
HMS Invincible on July 20th 1982 still intact. Again, no CIWS Phalanx on the front or the rear quarter. This can only be Invincible…and she hasn’t got a scratch:
HMS Illustrious passes HMS Ark Royal June 20th on its way to relieve Invincible. As we see, these have CIWS Phalanx fitted. Exactly one month to the day, Invincible was photographed (as above) with none…these were the only three ships of their type in the world:
Three images showing HMS Illustrious relieving HMS Invincible on August 28th 1982. Invincible, farthest away in the picture, has no CIWS Phalanx on the rear right quarter or the front, unlike her sister ship. This therefore can only be Invincible and she is, as we can see, unscathed:
Hermes going home and passing Illustrious on her way to relieve the Invincible:
Hermes and Invincible, side by side:
HMS Hermes returns home unscathed:
As does HMS Invincible – again completely unscathed:
RUMOURS: There are many rumours surrounding what did or did not happen. The official story is simple; Invincible was not attacked, not hit, not damaged and not sunk. She performed a routine turbine change, sat in position until relieved and then came home. However this simply doesn’t work to those who believe the “Invincible Myth” and a number of hypotheses have been put forward which sway from the sublime to the ridiculous…supposedly a new carrier was built in secret (in six weeks!) and sailed out. It was said that the Illustrious sailed out and then sailed back as Invincible giving Britain time to build a new carrier – this is ridiculous; many photographs exist of the two ships together on that date and indeed I have spoken to the man who took some of the most famous photos of this meeting. There is the idea that the USA built one for us…which is just ridiculous, and a new story that the Ark Royal was sped up and exchanged for the sunken Invincible – indeed it seems that hardly anyone can actually agree upon the story! Argentine self-proclaimed ‘Historical Superhero’ Miguel Bortolotto has spent 14 years of his life perfecting his curious ideas on websites and blog pages (it isn’t a waste of life, he is widely followed in Argentina and also sells advertising space on these pages – go figure!) and daily they become more far-flung….well let us look at the facts.
Images provided by Bortolotto originally claiming that Invincible was swapped for Illustrious. He recently abandoned this theory and decide that the Ark Royal was magically transformed into a ‘clone’ Invincible. The constant countering of what was already a bad story does more to rubbish his assertions than to credit them:
FACTS: The first fact is that everyone who was there on May 30th is still here…nobody died or was injured. The press never said a word and I have personally spoken to approaching 30 of the men who were there that day…nothing happened! Secondly is the idea that if damaged, then Invincible would have needed extensive repair…with what I don’t know? You can change a turbine at sea, but fixing up an aircraft carrier after an anti-ship missile has hit it, 8,000 miles from home and without a dry dock is beyond any maintenance crew in history. Could a ‘fourth carrier’ have been built? – Let’s get real. Britain wasn’t exactly flush for cash. And considering that both carriers were seen three months later together and the journey to the Falklands takes six weeks….that’s six weeks to build an aircraft carrier. Maybe two years would be quick..but six weeks? You couldn’t even get the tooling ready in six weeks! Then is the obvious tell-tale of the Invincible – she had no CIWS Phalanx gatling guns. You can see them on the Illustrious – the tall white ‘top-hat’ looking thing on the front and on the right and rear…in fact she was completed quickly and they had to fly them out to her and fit them at sea. When we see Illustrious and Invincible together, these are the only two ships of this type in the world at this time. It can only be them. Invincible is show as intact dated on July 20th just seven weeks after the ‘attack’ and in a number of other pictures before and after. There is the question as to why she looked ‘as good as new’ when she returned to the UK (she is rusted on July 20th) and again the answer is simple; the captain had the entire crew chipping and painting during the extended stay in the Falklands…again ask anyone who was there. It was boring, but it cured the complete inaction. Everyone says this.
The fact is that HMS Invincible was not attacked. She was not damaged. She was not sunk.
One only has to look at the stories and downright lies pertaining to Hermes and Canberra amongst others to see that this story is simply ridiculous. It is not possible, probable, likely or credible to build a ‘secret’ aircraft carrier in six weeks. Not when the British admitted to every other ship sunk or damaged. Even if Britain had wanted to…well, it is simply impossible. It did not happen. I am told that the Kirchner government contacted Bob Ballard, legendary discoverer of the Titanic and asked him to find it for them…perhaps not surprisingly, he said no.
MODERN MYTHS AND THE TRUTH UNCOVERED:
Modern day ‘list’ of ships supposedly lost by the British in the Falklands War, still showing Invincible and Hermes as ‘considered’ or ‘possibly sunk or damaged’ – the old myths die hard:
Here a more recent Argentine photograph from the press shows an impressive attack against HMS Penelope with the caption “A greeting to your Queen”:
Sadly for those who created it, here is the original. The one above was, unsurprisingly, another fake:
A supposed intercepted ‘FLASH’ Signit from the Royal Navy to the US Navy purporting to show evidence that the US helped the British to cover the loss of both carriers through damage or sinking…sadly the spelling errors, the typo’s, the Spanish grammar and finally the date (“We will keep this a secret until 1972 as agreed” – it was supposed to have been written in 1982) and is a ridiculous mistake supposed to pertain to the secrets act which closes some of the files until 2072…he really should have checked! The author of this books was uncovered as a fraud after also trying to sell dog bones to the UK (and a book off the back of it) claiming they were the discovered graves of SAS men. This kind of continued outright lie simply destroys any credibility for the case:
There can be only one conclusion to this vast amount of evidence, and that is that the supposed sinking of the Invincible is a myth. A pilot who claimed not to have seen it and then countered his story by saying he was so close he nearly crashed into it. The pilots credited with successfully attacking Hermes and Canberra likewise had sworn testimony and these likewise had no basis for such…yet the testimony of one pilot, added to with a turbine change, seems to have amounted to an entire aircraft carrier sunk. Of course, it simply did not happen. The story – and the various ‘conspiracy hypotheses’ (they aren’t even theories) trip and stumble over themselves and each other, leaving the entire case quite ridiculous, and as we can see, they are outright lies designed to create conjecture where, quite simply, there is none.
So did the pilots lie? – Well I hate to call a man a liar. They were doing their jobs but we must remember who their boss was; a regime which could quite happily and easily make them ‘disappear’. It was not so much the pilots but the press…and the junta controlled the press, indeed it issued four direct orders to the press that ONLY what the junta wanted printed was to be printed. To do otherwise would be punishable by the most severe methods, as follows:
1- All information and news from abroad used by the media and all information disseminated by the media related to military operations and national security are subject to the control of Staff.
2- The General Staff exercise control over information.
3. The director and the editor of the media will be considered directly responsible for violations of Article 1.
4- Any violation shall be punished with the closure of the media and the arrest of the director or editor.
So why be so harsh on the pilots? Once hoisted up as national heroes, could they climb down? They would have to be somebody’s liars in the end, and one was more creditable to them than admitting they made the whole thing up. By maintaining the same old story, they got to be heroes…heroes which they were not – or at least not for the reason they are still cast as heroes. It is hard to call men liars whom, if they admitted the truth would simply be cast as bigger liars! Here is the conclusion to the story.
HMS Invincible was therefore, absolutely and categorically NOT attacked, was NOT damaged and was definitely NOT sunk. The case is closed, but for many, there is simply a blind belief that somewhere under the waves of the South Atlantic, is a phantom ship which has been denied for almost 35 years….I guess anyone can dream, except for Bortolotto who, having spent 14 years trying to ‘prove’ his myth, has got nowhere. But then, through his popular blogs and websites, he also sells advertising space. Perhaps he isn’t a fool after all….
Post Script: Since the publication of this post, I have had the dubious ‘pleasure’ of speaking to Miguel Bortolotto himself and can honestly say that his ideas are, well… strange. He remains convinced by his many photographs and reports and yet seems to have avoided and dismissed anything which might challenge his opinions. On top of what he claims were 700-800 covered up deaths on Invincible, he manages to state 200 more on the Coventry and several hundred others, bringing his claimed total to 1,200 men!!
However, he has not spoken to one single member of the Invincible’s crew (all of whom made it home safely) let alone anyone else from the other ships involved in the incident. He has re-dated photographs to suit his case (despite the fact that I know the photographer who has given me actual dated originals), not included Philippi’s testimony and Lord only knows what else! This is the problem with conspiracy myths (remember it isn’t a theory) – when you start to look at the sheer amount of people who would have to keep this secret, it runs into the tens of thousands. Colleagues, family, friends, anyone connected to anyone involved…the British government would have had to pay off over 50,000 people to make it stick. Even then, it is impossible to build an aircraft carrier in six weeks – and with what money? Britain was skint and yet, by Bortolotto’s calculations (and he is thorough at least) would have cost five times the amount of building the original. Considering the project was over-budget and one carrier was to be sold to Australia to recoup some money, is it even likely??
When you add it up…well, it doesn’t add up. To silence 50,000 people for 35 years without a leak, to build an aircraft carrier in six weeks, to spend five times the amount of one carrier when the cost of three was crippling…..it is simply impossible. But try telling that to the “Global Intelligence Superhero” himself (yes he actually calls himself that and genuinely believes he is a superhero…he told me himself!) and of course, this doesn’t fit his version. It’s nothing new. As Caesar said; “Men most commonly believe that which they wish to be true.”
But then, as we have said, with advertising space being sold by the bucket and a new book set to bore us all into the land of nod, he has a vested interest in peddling lies. He actually isn’t a very pleasant person; conceited, fanatical and arrogant as be-damned. You can’t help feeling sorry for the guy though. He actually genuinely believes it. I guess what drives you on really can drive you mad.