Tag Archives: Special Air Service

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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SAS Trooper by Charlie Radford, edited by Francis Mackay

I really enjoyed this book, and probably for different reasons than intended. And probably for what some people consider to be the least glamorous parts of this story!

Charlie Radford grew up in Devon. Joining the Royal Engineers just prior to the start of the Second World War as a boy Sapper. We follow Charlie to North Africa, where he was in action with an RE Field Company in Algeria and Tunisia – one of the least known campaigns of the war. Volunteering for Special Forces, Charlie then joined the SAS. The SAS had been formed only a few years before in North Africa, and Charlie Radford joined just in time to take part in operations behind enemy lines in German occupied France, immediately after D-Day. After returning from France, his unit were then sent to Italy, to link up with Partisans in Northern Italy.

The SAS in 1944 was still in its infancy, and although the modern Regiment traces its lineage back to this time, the early pioneers were still very much finding their way by trial and error. Trained to parachute into action, the SAS had much success operating in North West Europe behind German lines, with heavily armed and mobile Jeeps. It was a tactic that had worked in the Desert. By contrast, when Radford and his comrades parachuted into Northern Italy, they seem to have struggled for equipment and supplies, and were dependant on local partisans – a slightly precarious position, one feels.

After leaving the SAS, Charlie had to serve out his service with the Royal Engineers, his parent unit. He didn’t do this quietly, for he was sent to East Africa as an NCO in an Engineer Squadron, working with African natives, in particular the Askari tribe, in Kenya, Tanazania and Somalia. These were interesting times, and Radford’s recollections of life in 1940′s British Africa are fascinating. In fact, to consider this just another  Special Forces memoir is to do it a diservice.

The stories of SAS raids are exciting, and I suspect why the publishers felt Radford’s memoirs deserved to make it into print. But for me, it is the human elements that make this story so interesting. The memories of a young man from Devon joining the Army and going through basic training, life onboard troopships, liaisons with women during wartime, Army food, and things like that. For example, Charlie felt that Winston Churchill lost the General Election in 1945, as his generation were more educated and more independently minded than their forefathers in 1918, and did not want to be controlled or talked down to any more. Interesting stuff for the social historian. In particular I was rivetted by his experiences in East Africa, certainly not a part of the world that many young men from England would have known much about in the 1940′s.

But all throughout, Radford sounds like a very normal, down to earth young man – something that is very endearing to the reader, and very important in keeping our sense of perspective that these men were young men, the same as we are today. The more of these kinds of memoirs that make into print the better – we will be very glad of it in years to come.

SAS Trooper is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, social history, special forces, Uncategorized, World War Two

In Rommel’s Backyard: A Memoir of the Long Range Desert Group by Alastair Timpson with Andrew Gibson-Watt

Military Memoirs are always useful to read. True, depending on the author style they might not always be the most rivetting, but what better than reading about what happened from the horses mouth? Here the wartime memoirs of Alastair Timpson, an officer with the Long Range Desert Group, have been admirably edited by Andrew Gibson-Watt.

Timpson joined the Long Range Desert Group early in the Desert War, and became a commander of one of the patrols. He gained a reputation for sharing the dangers and discomforts – not something that British Officers have always been known for. Indeed, his memoirs show a real connection with his men - something that was obviously crucial in the close-knit work behind enemy lines. He comes across as a level-headed, sensible man who was also more than happy to take the fight to the enemy when necessary. History would suggest that these qualities are an ideal combination for a special forces officer. The Group’s war was spent very much out in the Desert, conducting raids, attacking airfields, transporting the SAS, and most notably, carrying out observation on Axis supply routes and giving useful intelligence to the High Command. There are some incredibly stories here, made all the more incredibly by Timpson’s modest style of writing. His story of his observation post being camped on by a German convoy, and his subsequent escape, is breathtaking.

But its not all about the action. Timpson writes about the ever present North African flies, the monotony of Bully Beef, the shortage of drinking water, relations with the indigenous Arabs and Bedouin, the relations between the Germans and Italians (who seemed to despise each other), and the nasty illnesses that could be contracted in the desert. These kinds of details add colour to our understanding of what it must have been like to serve in North Africa. Of course, we can never KNOW exactly what it was like – this is something of a cliche – but we can get pretty close to it. And in some ways, this is more important to history than knowing who fought who where and when.

As the Desert War came to a close when the allies defeated Rommel, Timpson returned to his Scots Guards Battalion. In some ways this was a wise move, for the Long Range Desert Group’s role raison detre had vanished, and it saw little fighting after 1943. However, whilst serving with his Battalion in Italy Timpson was seriously wounded at Monte Camino, and after a long recovery fought no more. Fortunately, Timpson kept meticulous notes, intending them to be of interest to his family. After his death, however, his son realised that they would interest a much wider audience, and offered them for publication.

A few things struck me whilst reading this book. Firstly, if only the members of Bravo Two Zero had read it before they set off for their ill-fated patrol in the Gulf. The Long Range Desert Group proved that you CAN operate vehicles behind enemy lines in the Desert. And vehicles - in this case heavily armed Jeeps and supporting trucks – were surprisingly easy to hide, and also packed a serious punch. The original SAS reverted to Jeeps after their attempts at airborne drops were a disaster. The history was there for all to read, so why did Bravo Two Zero insist on going in on foot, against all the evidence? On the other hand, Peter Ratcliffe was the SAS’s Regimental Sergeant Major in the Gulf, and his book ‘Eye of the Storm‘ could be interchanged with Timpson’s – the tactics are exactly the same.

Secondly, that the British Army in the Western Desert gave birth to all manner of private armies in the toing and froing with Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The SAS, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the SBS, Layforce, the Special Raiding Squadron and also Army Commandos also fought in the Western Desert. It was an incredibly untidy situation, with all kinds of units and men operating at any given time. Most of these units seem to have formed independently and organically, with a particular officer developing his own ‘baby’. The extent to which their work was co-ordinated and the degree to which these units worked together would be interesting to research.

Finally, Timpson’s experiences are an illustration of the Brigade of Guard’s role in the British Army. One of the Long Range Desert Group’s Squadrons – G Squadron,  G for Guards - was comprised solely of Guardsmen, with one patrol from the Coldstream Guards, and another from the Scots Guards. This recruiting policy was strictly adhered to, to the extent that the men seem to have been perplexed when some Grenadier Guards were sent to join them! This is a prime example of the age-old dilemma between capbadge loyalty and flexibility.

I found this a very interesting and enjoyable bo0k indeed. And not only that, but also thought-provoking – which is never a bad thing. It should appeal both to fans of special forces and current-day soldiers alike.

In Rommel’s Backyard is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, special forces, World War Two