I led the Falklands SAS mission that no one wants to talk about

I led the Falklands SAS mission that no one wants to talk about

Former captain Andy Legg on how a plan to blow up Argentine jets armed with Exocet missiles went awry

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



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