The secret disastrous SAS attempt to invade Argentina.
By EWEN SOUTHBY-TAILYOUR 29 March 2014
In the Falklands War, crack troops go on a suicidal mission to storm Galtieri's Exocet missile base. This is their story - told for the first time SAS troop were ordered to attack an Argentina missile base Operation Plum Duff's mission was to enter an air base called Rio Grande.
A troop of eight struggled for over a week on the Argentine plains. Given inadequate equipment, little information and useless maps.
A troop of eight struggled for over a week on the Argentine plains. Given inadequate equipment, little information and useless maps.
It was dark, freezing cold and 0800 GMT. Or, more significantly, ‘five o’clock, local, in the bloody morning’. Behind their captain, the SAS troopers were dragging their equipment on to the sodden Patagonian grass. The penultimate leg of 6 Troop’s long approach to battle had ended. From here it was up to them.
As the Sea King helicopter’s distinctive clatter faded towards the west-north-west, troop commander Captain Andrew Lawrence allowed himself a few moments to reflect. There was a sinking feeling in his stomach.
The task was to reach Rio Grande, a closely defended air base some 70 miles away. Once there, they were to attack a detachment of Argentina’s Super Etendarde fighter planes and their deadly load of Exocet missiles.
Deadly missile threat: The goal was to attack Rio Grande, pictured, a heavily defended base on the Argentine mainland, where Exocets can bee seen being loaded on to Super Etendard fighter jets
They had already destroyed one ship and now threatened the entire British Task Force off the Falkland Islands.
The objective was clear, if suicidally dangerous. But little else made sense. There were eight of them in the unit, too many for a long clandestine approach across ‘bare arse’ countryside. Four would have been fine, two better still.
And it was the wrong countryside. This was Chile, not Argentina. The border was still some 40 miles distant to the east.
Given the onset of winter, the deteriorating weather, and with clothes and equipment still not fully dry from an earlier parachute drop into the sea, Lawrence (not his real name) could only grimace in desperation. The patrol had provisions for just four days.
The waning moon was no longer visible and the fog had lifted, to be replaced by sleet that was already bringing dampness of its own. It was completely dark. Apart from the wind rustling eerily through the rough pampas grass there was no noise, just the utter desolation, geographical and physical, of their position. ‘It’s time,’ thought Lawrence, ‘to tell the boys the bad news.’
Where they went in: One section of B Squadron, SAS, arriving in the South Atlantic on 14 June, 1982, from were picked up by the Navy and later flown by Sea King helicopter to the South American mainland.
It was in a Hereford briefing room just four days earlier that, finally, the truth was confirmed. Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, director of the Special Air Service, looked around intent on catching all eyes, and spoke.
‘You are all no doubt aware of the fragility of the Task Force’s position and what might happen should one of our aircraft carriers be lost,’ he said.
‘Your mission is to identify the location of the enemy aircraft and, if possible, destroy them.’
These final orders were issued on May 14, 1982, ten days after the Argentinians had launched two of their five Exocets and destroyed HMS Sheffield. So three of the French-made missiles were still at Rio Grande . . .
At 0500 the following morning, 6 Troop would depart.
By any stretch of the imagination Operation Plum Duff was a tall order, made taller by the lack of intelligence, coherent maps or proper briefings. It was clear to every member of the patrol that they had been asked ‘to conduct a full frontal assault into the unknown’.
The exact position of the Rio Grande air base remained a mystery. So did its defences. Were there perimeter fences? Were they were mined or covered by fire? Were there patrols, dogs, security lights?
The schedule was as follows:
On May 15, the team would fly to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. From there they would be taken in a C130 RAF Hercules transport plane to the waters off the Falklands. Then, following a parachute drop, the Royal Navy would pick them up from the ocean and take them aboard a carrier. Finally, they would travel – probably by helicopter – to their mission.
Plum Duff proved to be the only armed incursion on the South American mainland in the whole of the Falklands campaign. There was clearly a rush to destroy Exocets before they caused more damage – unless it was merely a case of demonstrating political will. ‘Maybe best to leave that to the politicians,’ thought Captain Lawrence. ‘In the meantime this is now and we need to give it our best shot.’
On the sodden earth of Tierra del Fuego, 6 Troop lay still. Uncomfortable after so long aboard a lumbering, seatless Sea King helicopter, they longed to stretch cold limbs.
After ten minutes the troop commander struggled to his feet and explained to the barely visible, blackened faces that the first landing site on or near the Argentine border some 26 miles from their target, had been compromised. Instead, fearing they were tracked by the Argentine defences, they had been forced to fly further into Chile.
The only option was to start moving eastwards until first light. There were three hours left.
Low-lying, gentle hills covered with vast patches of marsh and grass made it hard to move swiftly. There was snow on the ground and near-freezing rain blew horizontally into their backs.
The man in charge: 'Captain Andrew Lawrence' has told his story on the condition of anonymity.
Secrecy was essential: the Argentine military was already alerted by the noisy Sea King, while the Chileans, though friendly in private, were officially neutral in the conflict.
Progress was slow – the troops were covering less than 1½ miles an hour. At that rate it would take them two-and-a-half days’ rations merely to reach the border. Each man carried nearly 80lbs, including explosives and timers, the standard issue M15 Armalite, and a Browning 9mm pistol. Packed in each bergen [back pack] was a camouflage net and a ‘green maggot’ sleeping bag.
The patrol was simply not equipped for a long-term reconnaissance – only for a swift, in-and-out, direct-action operation. Incredibly, no one carried any night-vision equipment. And the explosives were taken at the expense of food and suitable clothing. But at the heart of the concern for the patrol commander were the two maps.
One was a flimsy sheet which appeared to have been removed from a school atlas of 1930s vintage. The second was the 1943 edition of an Argentinian map stamped ‘Cambridge University Library 1967’.
They were the best ‘the system’ could come up with. Neither showed the Rio Grande air base or many salient features other than the coasts, rivers and lakes.
Lawrence had assumed that proper maps would meet them at Ascension Island or on board HMS Invincible, their final departure point.
He was wrong.
As sleet seeped into shoulders, backs and bergens, the patrol eventually stopped and two men were sent to seek better shelter. When daylight broke on May 18, it brought no relief, just sickness. Trooper Taff was unwell, weakening with a rising temperature.
It was time to call Hereford. The radio, thanks to its ducking in the Southern Ocean, had been refusing to co-operate. Now it perked up, but there was little appreciation back home. The authorities were made aware, forcibly, that the insertion on to the mainland had not gone as planned and that the maps were worse than useless.
Yet, from 8,000 miles away, came a direct and unequivocal order that Lawrence must continue.
He argued back that he would wait for 24 hours for Trooper Taff to recover. What he longed to say, but didn’t, was that in the collective opinion of his team, Hereford had been, ‘prepared to write us off from the very beginning’.
Throughout daylight on May 19 and May 20 the men lay in their sleet-covered, poleless tents, conserving energy. In each direction, there was nothing but undulating plains of pampas grass, covered with snow or ice. Reality was closing in. Fast. After dark on the 20th, they resumed their increasingly pointless trek. With only two days’ rations left, they were still no closer than ten miles from the border, and from there the target was a further 30 miles across enemy territory.
By the following day, the game was over. Lawrence told Hereford that a re-supply of food – by air-drop if necessary – was imperative before they entered Argentina.
The response was swift and unexpected. The patrol was to head back to an emergency rendezvous manned by Captain Pete Hogg of the SAS. Hogg had originally flown into Chile to debrief the Royal Marines captured in April while defending South Georgia, and then released. Lawrence had never been made aware that such an emergency plan would or could be activated. A meeting place was agreed – a bridge – chosen from a map with neither contours nor grid.
Hogg would meet them the following night when the rendezvous would be open for only one hour after sunset.
Following that final conversation, the patrol’s communications system died, finally and irreversibly.
By late afternoon on May 22, 6 Troop believed they were in the correct location. Wriggled down into the sodden undergrowth, they waited for dusk. Nothing happened that evening nor for the next three days.
On the morning of May 26, Lawrence and another trooper slipped their civilian camping coats over their camouflaged jackets, pocketed their 9mm Browning pistols and made for the nearest town, Porvenir, more than 50 miles distant.
They hitched on a logging truck hoping at some point to be able to make a telephone call to the British consul. In Porvenir, they were directed towards a wooden hut, where a single communal radio-telephone was operated by one man.
Doomed to disaster: They ended up in Chilean Terra del Fuego, pictured, with old maps, and after 12 gruelling days and facing starvation, were forced to abandon their ill-fated mission.
The consul came on the line. Lawrence recalls: ‘I spoke to him and he was horrified as he hadn’t been briefed. He was terrified.
‘I said, ‘‘I’ve got all these guys in the field with no food and I need to do something about them,” but all he could say was, ‘‘My advice is that you give yourselves up’’.’
The lack of understanding or assistance from an official of the British Foreign Office was a deep and unexpected disappointment.
That evening, walking round Porvenir, Lawrence was amazed to bump into the SBS men who were supposed to be rescuing his troop.
He says: ‘Believe it or not, as we walked past the open door of an eating house, we looked in and saw not only Pete Hogg but [SAS colleagues] Brummie Stokes and Bronco Lane.’
It was obvious to Lawrence that – for reasons that to this day remain unclear – the rescue party had made no attempt to make the emergency rendezvous on the chosen night, or any subsequent night.
But on May 30, the eight men – now dressed in civilian clothes, and in the strictest secrecy – boarded a light aircraft for Santiago. On June 8, they were ordered to return home.
From the very beginning, Plum Duff threw up disturbing questions. One member of the Special Operations Group formed in London to support the Task Force said: ‘This whole operation was the “Hereford hooligans” demanding an operation to help “maintain the myth”. There was a very strong planning team at Hereford who were dying to get some action.’
With the failure of Plum Duff, Lawrence faced a board of inquiry and found his military career was over, sunk mainly by his belief that the original landing point had been unsafe, and his decision to land further into Chile. He says: ‘I didn’t want to be in the Army if I could not be in the SAS, so I quit.
‘There are risks associated with what we do and we accept that, but we always like to be sent off on something that we think is reasonably sane and with a reasonable chance of a positive result.
‘Plum Duff does seem to have been different.’
It is true that the stakes were high. The air-launched Exocets from Rio Grande destroyed HMS Sheffield, the MV Atlantic Conveyor, and came close to doing much, much worse. Fear of the Exocets shaped the whole battle plan of the Task Force, and in doing so led, arguably, to the loss of many more lives.
History shows, though, that Captain Lawrence and his men from B Squadron, 22 SAS Regiment, did everything that was asked of them, willingly, professionally and without hesitation.
Despite the appalling circumstances into which they were pitched, the inadequate equipment and food, the lack of any form of intelligence, two useless maps and the unavoidable realisation that they were written off and ‘not expected to survive’, they acted in the very highest traditions of the regiment.
Indeed, it might come to be realised that, through their stoic and uncomplaining fortitude, they themselves have helped ‘maintain the myth’.
Exocet Falklands by Ewen Southby-Tailyour is published by Pen & Sword, priced £25. To order your copy at the special price of £20 with free p&p, call the Mail Book Shop on 0844 472 4157 or go to mailbookshop.co.uk.