Background and Geography
The dispute of the Falkland Islands, or Spanish name Las Islas Malvinas, stretches back over four centuries. The islands, located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, are some 7,000 miles from the British Isles and comprise West and East Falkland, with over 100 smaller islands peppered around the perimeter. The Falkland Islands’ population of nearly 2,000 is almost entirely of British extraction, the vast majority of which lives in the capital (and only town), Port Stanley. The economy of the Falklands relies upon farming of wool and hide, most of which is exported to Britain and parts of Europe. Following 1982’s Falklands War, the British armed forces established a significant presence on the twin islands, and it remains a regular posting for all of the nation’s three services. The geography of the islands is mountainous and comprises mostly open moorland and exposed beaches. The climate is notoriously windswept, damp, and cool, with summer temperatures (January) rarely exceeding 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
The satellite Islands of South Georgia lie 900 miles farther to the southeast of the Falklands, and are home to a small British Antarctic Survey team headquarters around the former whaling station at Grytviken.
Road to War
In 1816, the State of Argentina gained independence from Spain, and in 1820 dispatched warships to claim the islands for Argentina. In 1831, Governor Louis Vernet accused several American seal hunters of poaching and tried them in Buenos Aires for theft. In reprisal, U.S. President Andrew Jackson dispatched the USS Lexington to the islands, and the warship destroyed the fortifications of Puerto Soledad (Port Stanley). The Americans declared the islands “free of government.” In 1833, the British warships HMS Tyne and Clio, under Capt. James Onslow, claimed the islands for Britain and established a governor general and a capital at Port Stanley. The ownership of the islands, therefore, remained a point of contention between Argentina and the United Kingdom into the late 20th century.
In 1982, the Argentinian military junta of Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri faced increased domestic unrest at home, and the grandees of the junta were looking to hold onto power. Since the creation of the Argentinian state, the question of the Malvinas had raised passions and heated debate politically and domestically in Argentina. For Galtieri it was the perfect time to recover what Buenos Aires considered the “lost islands.” Discussions over sovereignty with the British had been ongoing for several years, with various British governments being more sympathetic to the idea than others. But Galtieri and the junta regime faced one major problem after invading the islands – Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s Conservative government was also facing a degree of domestic hostility – the result of rising unemployment and interest rates and an ailing economy. For Thatcher, and most of the country, the Argentinian invasion of British sovereign territory was unacceptable and had to be dealt with. At government level and within the military, there were no contingency plans for the Falklands, let alone the structures in place to launch a task force to travel the 7,000 miles to the islands. Despite attempts at the United Nations and via the Reagan administration to secure a diplomatic solution, the two sides were adamant, and conflict seemed unavoidable.
Preparation and Dispatch to the Falklands
During the afternoon of Friday, April 2, 1982, Lt. Col. Mike Rose, commanding officer of 22 Special Air Service in Hereford, was on the phone to the headquarters of the British Antarctic Survey Group in Cambridge. Having heard that the Falklands had been invaded by Argentine forces, Rose swung into action and called in the regiment’s top advisors, cancelled leave, and established a command situation. For SAS planners, the situation was a tough one. There were no contingency plans in place for the recovery of the Falklands in the event of invasion. This probably owed more to the general disbelief at the Ministry of Defence that an operation to regain the Falklands was feasible. The only realistic “jump off” point for the Falklands was the tiny British settlement of the Ascension Islands, some 3,700 miles from the UK, and halfway between the ports of the Royal Navy and the Falklands themselves.
Events began to move apace at Hereford. Keen for his men to play a pivotal role in the forthcoming operation, Rose offered the services of two specialist Boat Squadron men to the SBS (Special Boat Service), who were preparing to sail to the South Atlantic. Rose liased heavily with Brigadier Julian Thompson OBE, who was to command the operation code-named “Corporate” – a landing on the islands. On Sunday, April 4, an advance party from “D” Squadron SAS joined their SBS comrades and flew to the Ascension Islands. The Falklands Task Force, specially sanctioned by the British Cabinet, was to be commanded by the highly experienced Rear Adm. Sandy Woodward from his flagship HMS Hermes. Operation Corporate’s command center was located on board Hermes, as was the Combat Command Headquarters. The mission for the men of D Squadron SAS was to join 42 Royal Marine Commando during an assault upon the island of South Georgia, some 900 miles south of the Falklands.
It was becoming clear to the British government that no amount of diplomacy, via the United States or not, was going to resolve the Argentinian invasion. The military junta in Buenos Aires was adamant that the question of sovereignty was “un-negotiable” and that the Falklands were “Las Islas Malvinas.” In Hereford, Rose mobilised “G” Squadron (Mountain Troop) SAS, and they set sail aboard a fleet replenishment vessel, RFA Resource, equipped with a helicopter flight deck and training facility. Traveling on board was Staff Sgt. Paul “Poker” Lewis from G Squadron:
“The journey was uneventful really, we trained in the limited space we had, and most of us were keen to get going on the operation. We didn’t know much about the Falklands or the Argies, but spirits were high and we were pleased to [be] on the move.”
The Argentinian forces on the Falklands were buoyant. Far from being defeated, they had sophisticated radio direction finding equipment and a heavily armed Fuerza Aerea Argentina (Argentinian air force) equipped with Skyhawk A-4B/C attack bombers, as well as Mirage and Pucara aircraft. In addition, the Argentinian navy was armed with the deadly Super Etendard strike fighters, equipped with French-built Exocet missiles. For G Squadron, any landing on the Falklands would not be without significant risk.
Recce on Pebble Island
For Task Force Commander Woodward, the landing beaches of San Carlos Water on East Falkland provided the best opportunity for a British assault. On the opposite side of the island from Port Stanley, the British needed to establish a bridgehead prior to the long march across the island to capture Stanley. The problem for Woodward was that the Argentinians had established a forward air base on Pebble Island to the west of the San Carlos beaches. With a garrison of over 100 men and equipped with ground attack IA-58 Pucaras, each with two 20 mm cannons and four 7.62 machine-guns, the threat needed to be neutralized. Boat Troop men of D Squadron, fresh from operations on South Georgia, were tasked with the recce on Pebble Island. On the night of Tuesday, May 11, the forward cadre of the reconnaissance party edged its way onto the narrow one-mile strip of land that was bordered on either side by the sea and afforded no natural cover. While the Argentinian sentries were not particularly alert, the D Squadron men had to move with extreme caution and were forced to abandon their “Bergen” backpacks in a shallow hollow to avoid detection against the horizon. As the recce party reported their findings to Hermes, the rest of Woodward’s landing fleet assembled prior to beachhead landings at San Carlos.
G Squadron (Mountain Troop) Attack
The timetable for the Pebble Island raid was tight. The task was given to talented 29-year-old Mountain Troop Commander Capt. John
(Gavin) Hamilton. Hamilton and his troop had already been in the thick of the action on South Georgia, having survived two helicopter crashes in blizzard conditions on the Fortuna Glacier, but he led his men to capture the outpost of Grytviken, the former whaling station. As he briefed the men of the Mountain Troop, he was under no illusion as to the magnitude of the task and the risks involved. Cpl. “Geordie” Wright was on the team designated to destroy the Pucaras and the possible radar installation on Pebble Island:
“The weather at Grytviken had been the worst part of the shout. The boss was convinced that this would be different, but was determined that it would be a quick in and out job. On South Georgia we’d been ‘whited out’ by the conditions, and this affected our potential lay-down of fire. We knew that this job would be easier territory, but we had little idea of incoming fire power.”
Hamilton briefed his men aboard HMS Hermes, but there were problems. Hermes was well behind schedule as she battled the strong headwinds of the South Atlantic, and she arrived at the launching point late. To make things worse, the squally weather had prevented the Sea King helicopters from being prepared on the flight deck as they steamed west. Hamilton was forced to revise the plan of attack with legendary SAS flexibility and amend the sortie to take 30 minutes instead of the original 90. The Sea King left the deck of Hermes with the men of Mountain Troop equipped with 81 mm mortars, M203 grenade launchers, and the deadly LAW 66 mm anti-tank rockets. In support, a gunnery officer landing with the SAS would carefully direct 4.5-inch fire from the decks of HMS Glamorgan, to destroy the Argentinian garrison positions. In relatively calm weather, the Sea King touched down four miles from the airstrip at a point marked out by the Boat Troop. Hamilton and his men emerged from the helo and began to unload the mortar bombs and light weapons as troopers from the Boat Squadron formed a defensive perimeter. Immediately the Mountain Troopers were struck by the incredible moonlight, and the problems of silhouette against the stark landscape. Following a short briefing from a Boat Troop (G Squadron) captain, the SAS men “yomped” their way across
Pebble Island to the airstrip.
As they approached the airstrip, the outline of the Pucaras came clearly into site and rounds from HMS Glamorgan’s guns smashed into the Argentinian garrison. Receiving inaccurate incoming small arms and machine gun fire, Hamilton assembled his men on aircraft dispersals and calmly affixed explosive charges to the waiting Argentinian planes. As the first of the Pucaras were blown, the shells from Glamorgan devastated the Argentinian fuel dump, ammunition store, and watchtower, creating a pyrotechnic display, and further illuminating the remaining Pucaras. In a 20-minute frenzy of destruction, the SAS men knocked out 11 aircraft, including six Pucaras, four Turbo-Mentors, and a Skyvan transport aircraft. Between them, Hamilton and “Paddy” Armstrong, a Mountain Troop explosives expert, had destroyed four Pucaras in glaring view of the enemy.
Withdrawal and Assessment
The entire operation had run to schedule. Within 30 minutes, the Argentinian outpost and all of the aircraft had been neutralized by the SAS. Casualties were slight; one man hit by shrapnel and one concussed from an Argentinian remote-controlled mine. Still on a tight schedule, the entire SAS force was picked up on time by the Sea Kings and transported back to HMS Hermes and Glamorgan, where a well-earned, full-cooked English breakfast awaited! At de-brief, Hamilton reported that the Argentinians had not placed a radar facility on the island, and that the garrison was rendered ineffective. The result was that the Argentinian force on Pebble Island played no role in opposing the San Carlos landings, and once again the SAS were in support of the main landing force that famously crossed East Falkland to liberate Port Stanley.
Capt. John Hamilton was tragically killed on June 10, 1982, while controlling naval gunfire from a position overlooking an 800-strong Argentinian garrison. Surrounded, Hamilton was killed while covering a trooper who escaped through the Argentinian lines and was eventually taken prisoner. Hamilton was awarded the Military Cross, and his citation mentioned his “outstanding determination and character, his extra-ordinary will to fight in spite of hopeless odds and suffering from wounds.” Just four days later, the Argentinian forces on the islands surrendered to Maj. Gen. Jeremy Moore, and the Union Jack was restored to the Falklands.
First published in The Year in Special Operations 2005.