Sometimes a book catches you by surprise. When Helion reached out and asked if I would like to review a title or two for them, I jumped at the occasion to sink my teeth into “Carrier Killer – China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century” by Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger. However, Helion offered two books, and among the titles on offer was also “Handbrake!” by Alejandro Amendolara and Mariano Sciaroni (ISBN: 9781915070722), dealing with what probably is the most well-known system of the Falklands War: the Super Étendard and its fearsome Exocet missile. In a change of plans, I will review the latter now, because I believe that the majority of those interested in the rather niche topic of Chinese ballistic anti-ship missiles will by now already know that Doyle and Herzinger has written an excellent book on the topic, and instead I will focus on “Handbrake!” which was a pleasant surprise.
(I will be using the standard English name throughout this text, largely due to using both in running text being unwieldy and since the name Falkland Islands is standardised in English).
Now, the Falklands War has been a personal area of interest for me for decades, as it in many ways combine my core interests of naval, aviation, and amphibious operations in a package held together by huge personalities, improvisation, bravery, and a serious amount of ‘can do’-attitude on both sides of the conflict. That was also why I was somewhat sceptical of how much new the book would bring, as I felt I had a rather good picture of the topic, and my fear was that dedicating 98 pages to what amounted to three missions actually seeing missiles fired would either just repeat the well-known story or go into tiresome minutiae. Fortunately, I was wrong.
The book starts with an overview of the Super Étendard and the AM39 Exocet, followed by a brief history of the Segunda Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Caza y Ataque (the Second Naval Fighter and Attack Squadron) of the Argentinian Naval Aviation. This then continues on to the chronology of the acquisition of the aircraft, the training of the pilots, deliveries, and how the IOC to FOC program was set up in Argentina. As is well-known, that nice plan was cut short by the war.
The book discusses the integration work, development of tactics, and the infighting and politics surrounding the usage of the unit – with both the Air Force and more surprisingly the Naval leadership showing surprisingly poor understanding of the capabilities and limitations – before discussing the history of the unit in the war with a focus on the missions flown. It manages to go into detail while still being a very readable text. It also include ample personal accounts not only from the 2de Escuadrilla, but also from those supporting the missions such as the SP-2H Neptune unit as well as from the UK side of the attacks. The last part of the book briefly look at the history of the unit and their aircraft following the war.
As said, while I felt I had a quite good grasp of the situation, but there was still ample detail throughout which were new to me. I knew there were challenges with the integration of the missiles, but the book opens up the nature of these and how they were overcome. In the same way, while I knew the Neptunes were old and worn, it is only after reading “Handbrake!” I understood the nature of these problems and why it wasn’t possible to push them just a bit harder considering it was war. The maps drawn for this book are also among the very best I’ve seen related to not just these strikes but air war in general, capturing not only the facts, but also taking care to point out radar contacts and timestamps which might or might not have been correct, something that makes it possible for the reader to follow not just what happened, but what the people involved in the fighting thought was happening. It is also the most detailed description of the controversial 30 May strike directed against HMS Invincible I’ve come across, and here as well we have not only the classic “they flew this route”-map, but also a detailed look at the Task Force and what was going on inside it during those hectic minutes.
This was my second Helion-book (after “Carrier Killer”), and as said I was positively surprised and impressed by the quality of the book throughout. The writing is excellent, the balance between the eyewitness accounts and the more objective narration that forty years of hindsight provides is spot on, and as mentioned the illustrations – including photographs, colour profiles of the Super Étendards, an SP-2H Neptune, one of the units earlier T-28P Trojans, a Dagger A, a KC-130H, an A-4C Skyhawk, and HMS Sheffield, and the excellent maps – are top notch. Working in the field professionally, I will say that the decision to allow the maps to be a bit cluttered in order to provide more information than what is usually the case was a true home-run.
If you are looking for what just might be the definitive account in English of the Super Étendard operations in the Falklands War, this might just be it. The only thing related which I feel might have been of value to include would be a brief account of the single land-based missile attack on HMS Glamorgan to cover all Exocet-launches, but the book is clearly written around the Super Étendard and the men surrounding the aircraft so I understand that decision – the Glamorgan-attack really doesn’t have any connections to the other besides the weapon used.
I will note that if you are new to the Falklands War, you will probably be better served by some broader work to begin with, to be able to fit the story of the five missile launches into the wider picture. However, if you like me have an unhealthy obses…, ahem, keen interest in the conflict, the book is an excellent addition to any bookshelf. Highly recommended.
The book was provided free of charge (except custom duties which I paid myself) for review by Helion.