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Falklands 30 – Pebble Island and Mikado: Special Forces in the Falklands

One intriguing element of the Falklands War is the use of Special Forces during the conflict. In some cases the SAS – and SBS – punched well above their weight. In other cases, they were misused and suffered significant losses. Due to their very nature, much of the story of the special forces in the Falklands is yet to – indeed may never – be told.

The SAS in particular was experiencing a high profile in 1982, shortly after the Iranian Embassy. Many of the men in the Regiment in 1982 had served in places such as Aden, Borneo and Northern Ireland. The SAS were among the first units into action, on South Georgia. On 21 April a troop was landed on Fortuna Glacier on the island, but had to be exfiltrated due to the blizzard conditions. Two Wessex Helicopters crashed attempting to lift them out. The third, from HMS Antrim, managed to take off, heavily overladed with SAS men and the crews of the other two crashed helicopters.

Although the Argentines had sunk HMS Sheffield with an Super Etendard-launched Exrocet misseile, it was knocwn that tchey possessed at least several more. Whilst EC arms embargos prevented Argentine procuring any ore from France, and secret service agents were outbidding the Argentines on the black market, the attention of military planners turned to neutralising the threat posed by the Etendard/Exocet combination. To lose one Destroyer was bad enough; but to lose an Aircraft Carrier might have meant the end of the war.

Operation Mikado was a plan to use the SAS to attack the Argentine’s Super Etendard bases at Tierra Fuego. On 17 May 1982 a Sea King of 846 Naval Air Squadron took off from HMS Invincible, which had steamed to within 500 miles of the Argentine mainland. The Sea King was carrying a recce party of B Squadron SAS, who were heading to scout the Super Etendard airbase at Rio Grande. It would be a one way trip for the Sea King – lacking the range to make it back to the task force, she was stripped down to the bare essentials. Landing west of the Chilean border, the aircraft was ditched in a lake. Even though the aircrew punched holes in her fuselage, she refused to sink. The aircrew were picked up in Chile and flown home.The SAS men believed that they had been spotted by the Chileans, and messaged their HQ in Hereford informing that the mission was being aborted. They had indeed been spotted, and 1,300 Argentine Marines sweeped the area searching for them.

This failure meant that the main party would have to go in blind. The fact that the recce party might have been compromised also meant that the Argentines might be suspicious and on alert. The Rio Grande area was believed to be defended by four Battalions of Argentine Marines. Despite this, the Squadron OC ordered the raid to go ahead. The operation had been rehearsed thoroughly for the past week.

The Mikado plan seems to have been strongly pushed for by Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, then director of British Special Forces. The plan called for two RAF C130 Hercules to fly from Ascension Island with 55 men of B Squadron SAS onboard. The Hercules would land on the tarmac of the runway, keeping their engines running while the SAS men destroyed the Etendards. If somehow the C130′s survived they men would re-board the aircraft and fly to neutral Chile. If not, then the survivors would have to cross the border on foot. The proposed plan was extremely sensitive, as it extended the war to the South American mainland – something that would not find favour among international opinion.

Tying up to Hercules transport aircraft meant that they would at best be interned in Chile for the duration, at worst be destroyed entirely. But perhaps worse than that, 55  expensively trained SAS troops – a significant proportion of Britain’s special forces – were being put in serious danger. Would the loss of these men and two aircraft have represented a good exchange for five Super Etendards?

One cannot help but feel that de la Billiere was taking his inspiration from raids on Axis airfields in North Africa. The situation in 1982 was quite different – the Argentines surely expected some kind of attack on their air bases. Perhaps DLB was inspired by Operation Entebbe, an Israeli operation to recover hostages on a hijacked airliner in Uganda. The Ugandan Forces in 1976 posed far less of a threat to the Israelis than the Argentines did to the SAS, both in terms of early warning and anti-air defences. The Argentine radar might give them a six minute warning of the incoming aircraft – ample time to throw up stout defences.

The SAS men – a lot more sensible and less bloodthirsty than popularculture would have us believe – do not seem to have liked the plan one bit, seeing it as a suicide mission. One Sergeant went as far as handing in his resignation. One RAF Pilot assigned to the mission is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The Squadron Commander agreed with the concept, but did not like the specifics of the plan that he was being pressured into implementing. The Squadron Commander was removed and replaced with the Regiment’s second in command. According to some accounts, De la Billiere made himself very unpopular in some quarters, as it was felt that he was trying to engineer a high-profile mission for the Regiment. After the war De la Billiere delivered a extremely ill-judged – some might say bad taste laden – speech to the SAS men, near enough accusing them of mutiny. He was laughed out of the room.

In hindsight, taking the war to the Argentine mainland in such a manner would have escalated the war, and not reflected well on the British effort to retake the islands. The Argentines were almost certainly on their guard against such an event, and it would be hard to believe that the slow, unarmed Hercules would be sitting ducks for the Argentine air defences. If they guarded Stanley airport with Roland and Tigercat missiles and radar-laid Rheinmetal cannon, what would they be guarding a mainland Super Etendard base with?

By contrast with Operation Mikado, the raid on Pebble Island was an outstanding success. Off West Falkland, Pebble Island hosted a small airfield with Pucara light attack aircraft and Mentor reconaissance craft. These aircraft were will within range of the chosen landing site at San Carlos, and could have compromised the amphibious task group on its way to the landings, and then launched attacks on the ships and troops at their most vulnerable point. According to Sandy Woodward’s memoirs, he was pondering the problem with his planning team when a ‘talking tree’ SAS officer chipped in, ‘I wonder if we might be able to help, Admiral?’. After convincing the SAS that they could not spend two weeks planning, the raid was set for the night of 14 and 15 May.

Boat Troop of D Squadron carried out prior reconaissance, via cockleshell-style Klepper canoes. On the night HMS Hermes sailed to off the north of West Falkland, accompanied by HMS Glamorgan. Sea King helicopters carried 45 members of D Squadron of the SAS, dropping them off just under four miles from the airfield. The raiding party were heavily armed, including mortars and anti-armour weapons. The party reached the airfield without being spotted, and managed to place explosive charges on all of the aircraft. Once the charges had been placed the SAS men opened fire with small arms, followed by gunfire support from HMS Glamorgan offshore.

The party were exfiltrated succesfully, with only one SAS man wounded. According to British sources the Argentine commander was killed – this is denied by the Argentines themselves – and 11 aircraft were destroyed. The raid was considered a complete success, with the objective neutralised and virtually no casualties suffered.

A further tragedy befell the SAS the night before the landings at San Carlos. Crossdecking between ships, a Sea King loaded with SAS men apparently struck a seabird in mid-flight. Of the 30 men on the aircraft, only eight got out alive. It was the largest loss of life for the Regiment since the Second World War. Many of the men lost were veterans of South Georgia and Pebble Island.

Other SAS patrols were out on the Falklands prior to the landings at San Carlos, carrying out the arguably less glamorous work of surveillance and survey work. Men ofthe SBS were on the landing beaches to guide the amphibious force in on D-Day. That the landings were succesful and unopposed was down very much to their work with the mark one human eyeball.

The profile and connections of the SAS do seem to have caused some problems for the force commanders on the ground. When more than one SAS Squadron deploys on an operation the CO accompanies them. In this instance he had direct satellite communication with Hereford and London, and hence was able to communicate with Britain quicker than any of his superiors. And in De la Billiere the SAS had a vociferous supporter who was not afraid to knock down doors in the interests of ‘his’ Regiment. Was Operation Mikado a political construction to aid the Regiment’s profile?

The experiences of special forces in the Falklands would suggest that there is much value in having highly trained, very capable special forces on call for unforseen eventualities. When tasked to do a job properly and given the resources to do it, the investment more than pays dividends. But, and this is a big but, they need to be properly used, and employed with care. As with most things military, it is about knowing your tools, and what jobs to use them for.

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