I led the Falklands SAS mission that no one wants to talk about
In April 1982, a few days after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, I was ordered to report to the SAS camp in Hereford. I was 28, a captain in B Squadron, and had spent five years in the army, two of them in the SAS in Northern Ireland and Oman.
At 8am the next day we were told there would be an undercover SAS operation by B Squadron to remove the threat of enemy jets stationed at Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego, off the southern tip of Argentina, 400 miles from the Falklands. The Argentine Super Étendard jets carried Exocet missiles and posed a serious threat to the Royal Navy task force and the 5,000 troops heading for the islands. Our job was to destroy them.
The SAS operation I took part in was ambitious, audacious and, ultimately, completely ineffective, proof that the SAS’s reputation for infallibility can run aground on reality. Operation Mikado was simple, echoing the wartime origins of the regiment when the fledgling Special Air Service destroyed hundreds of enemy planes during hit-and-run raids on north African airfields.
Two C-130 Hercules planes with 60 men on board would make a low-level approach at night over the sea and land stealthily at Rio Grande. Land Rovers armed
with heavy machineguns would burst on to the airfield, fan out, destroy the planes and kill the pilots in their accommodation blocks. The squadron would then split into small groups and make their way to the border.
There was no discussion of the plan —we were on a war footing —but SAS men are not stupid, and serious questions were raised. Argentina had sophisticated radars: how were we going to land two fully laden RAF planes without being spotted?
Still, the plan was sanctioned by Margaret Thatcher and the war cabinet, and we began training for the assault in earnest, night and day: long-distance forced marches in Wales, hours on the rifles ranges, night-navigation exercises, night-ambush drills and parachute drops. At Wick airport in the north of Scotland, with six inches of snow on the ground, we practised low-level approaches and landings by night to test the feasibility of flying low in off the sea without being picked up on radar. D and G Squadrons were sent off to the South Atlantic; B Squadron was held back.
On May 14, 1982, a week before British troops were due to land on the Falklands, we met the director of the SAS (DSAS), Brigadier Peter de la Billière, for our final briefing in the operations centre at Hereford HQ. De la Billière was a truly iconic figure in the regiment, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army at the time.
He walked in, informed me I had passed the junior staff college exams, then told us that the mission had changed completely. Instead of a full-scale attack on Rio Grande, I would be leading a nine-man patrol on a search-and-destroy mission to Rio Grande codenamed Operation Plum Duff.
Someone asked: “Any other intelligence on the enemy forces, sir?” None. When we asked about the method of insertion into Argentina the DSAS said: “We think you will be using a submarine, but we could be using a fast frigate and a patrol boat, or we could use a helicopter. Tomorrow you will be taken to Ascension Island and then flown down to the South Atlantic, where you will parachute into the sea.”
I asked: “If we are going into Argentina on a helicopter one way, what happens when they find that helicopter? You cannot just get rid of it. It is pretty large.” He basically said: “It is not your concern.”
I don’t know what action, if any, was taken to address our concerns.
By the time we reached Ascension Island, just south of the Equator, I felt we were on a one-way trip. We had little intelligence, few maps, no aerial photographs of Rio Grande and little idea of any enemy forces. It was going to be a wing-and-a-prayer job.
After another ten hours flying down over the South Atlantic, we rendezvoused with the RFA Fort Austin, off the Falklands, and parachuted fully loaded into the sea with all our kit, hoping to be quickly fished out by a small boat. It was 20 minutes before they found us and later took us to HMS Invincible.
The next day we heard we were going into Argentina aboard a stripped-down Sea King helicopter, which would then be abandoned and blown up by the crew. We had food for only three days because, as well as taking our normal kit, weapons and ammunition, we had lots of explosives. We’d been issued with one-man tents, but because of all the extra stuff we didn’t have room for the tent poles.
We took off from HMS Invincible in total darkness. I could see the lights of an oil rig. Near the Argentine coast the navigator said we had been detected on their radar, so we started to fly at low level, through the fog. The Royal Marines pilot and the navigator were using night-vision goggles.
After 15 minutes we reached the drop-off point northeast of Rio Grande airbase on the island of Tierra del Fuego, which shares a border with the southern tip of Chile near Cape Horn. One of the patrol had actually got down off the aircraft and was standing alone in Argentina when suddenly we saw lights and a flare going off. We were clearly compromised, so we hauled him and his kit back on board and headed for the secondary drop-off point, flying at low level.
As we headed towards the border with Chile, the visibility was awful and we had to gain altitude to 2,000ft. But at that height we could be picked up on radar, so we made a decision to go on into Chile and land as close to the border as possible. We would then cross back into Argentina and continue the mission.
The burnt out Royal Navy Sea King helicopter found at the shoreline of the Magellan Strait in 1982
We landed and headed back towards Argentina, across fairly rough terrain. Meanwhile, the helicopter crew flew on, abandoned their aircraft in the sea close to Punta Arenas in Chile, blew it up with demolition charges and went into hiding.
We established a lying-up position, tried to work out where we were and made contact with our SAS base at Hereford with a state-of-the-art satellite phone borrowed from US special forces. Hereford asked for my wife’s name as proof we were not being held at gunpoint because at that point they thought we might actually have been captured. I gave her name and they said: “Right, carry on —get some eyes on the ground.”
It was bloody awful and much colder than I imagined it would be. One of my men was quite ill. He’d been freezing cold when he was fished out of the sea only 24 hours before. We medicated him and let him rest for a bit. We worked our way eastwards towards the Argentine frontier, but was the border just a line on a map, or was there a barbed-wire fence?
By the third day we were running out of rations and it became obvious we would need to regroup. We talked to Hereford again. The instructions were to move west to a position from where we could give them our precise location so they could arrange to pick us up.
They tried to find us, but by now we were four days into the operation and still in Chile. The batteries went and the satellite phone had packed up. Getting back into Argentina was not going to happen without a resupply of food. We could probably manage for six days on three days’ rations, but could not hold out for ever. Operation Plum Duff was running out of time.
I decided to leave the rest of the guys and go with another man to locate some support. After several hours’ walking a Toyota pick-up truck came along carrying logs. He dropped us off at Porvenir, which looked like a western shanty town.
We stood out in our military uniforms. We carried 9mm pistols. Using some dollars and Argentine currency we checked into a guest house and I telephoned the British Consulate in Punte Arenas, saying we were British soldiers, that we had run out of food and needed support. He didn’t want to know, saying: “Well, you’re going to have to give yourselves up.”
When it was dark we wandered about Porvenir; then something unbelievable happened. I had noticed a four-wheel-drive vehicle and looked through a restaurant window and saw three other SAS guys. I had absolutely no idea they were going to be there because no one had told us to go to Porvenir. Using their pick-up truck, we got the rest of the lads and all our kit, and holed up in a safe house close to the airstrip near Porvenir, while Hereford decided what to do with us.
We still hoped to get into Argentina and finish the operation, but flew on a small Chilean air force plane to Santiago, where we stayed in a safe house, a big bungalow, for a week, waiting to see whether Hereford were going to fly us back south again.
We had our uniforms and kit in packs and our weaponry with us, and we were all dressed in civilian clothes. The days were spent talking and waiting to see what happened next. There was reading material and I played chess with another of the men. We cleaned our weapons and rested because we were pretty knackered. Our expectation was that we were going to be sent back south.
Then one morning they said: “You are going back to Hereford.” We went on a civilian flight, dressed in civilian clothes. Our kit was moved separately. A passport was dished out to me just before we got on the plane. We were deliberately dotted around the plane so we didn’t talk to each other, and we wore assorted borrowed clothes. I had a cashmere jumper lent by the staff at the British embassy. We flew to Sao Paulo, then Lisbon and on to London.
We did not go through passport control. The next day, at HQ, I discovered that my squadron boss had been dismissed after saying that Operation Mikado was not simply foolhardy, but downright unachievable. It was a view that many members of B Squadron held. Like the other blokes, I would like to have returned home with a better war story to tell. They probably felt, like me, cheated.
An Intelligence Corps officer attached to the SAS came and said: “Just calm down and deal with it. Keep your mouth shut because the stakes are so high on this.” He later told me that they subsequently discovered that the Argentine air force was not actually keeping the planes on the Rio Grande airfield at all. They were stationed on the runways on the huge estancias because they had their own airfields.
De la Billière later blamed the squadron. “I was dismayed to find that the attitude of this unit remained lukewarm,” he wrote in his autobiography. Speaking of Operation Mikado, the brigadier said: “I had to do what I thought was right for all the people whose lives were going tobe at stake.”
Even though the board of inquiry exonerated me, I felt I was being blamed for something. But there is no way anyone forced me out of the SAS. I forced myself out. Mike Rose, my commanding officer, who was not involved in the operation, said in a letter: “He decided to resign for his own reasons.” Every May, when the anniversary came around, I always used to feel a bit down.
Today I have moved on, but I’ve still got my demons. You don’t really forget about it. We didn’t blow anything up, the jets were not even on the target airfield, and only one of my team set foot, for a few minutes, in Argentina. You would have to imagine your men could walk on water to have had any chance of succeeding, at least based on the intelligence we were privy to.
Who dares wins, but proper planning, reliable information and back-up always help.
As told to Michael Bilton