The night was cold.
The howling wind was the only sound that could be heard for miles. Unfriendly as always, the barren tundra was covered in greenish slimy moss and high Antarctic hair grass. For once, however, the unforgiving environment of the south Atlantic was to the advantage of the SAS troopers.
The blizzards and treacherous glaciers of South Georgia were still fresh in the minds of the eight-man patrol, when they stealthily made their way from the drop-off point towards their target. It was the night of 11/12 May.
The men of boat troop D Squadron had been dropped off by a Sea King helicopter at Keppel Island, a small patch of land just south of Pebble Island. Their objective: carry out a reconnaissance of the Argentinian airfield at Pebble, and report back to the awaiting raiding force.
The all-revealing daylight restricted their movements to only the noiseless hour of dark. Thus, it wasn’t until the following night, 13 May, that they laboriously began their advance to Pebble. But before getting there, they first had to cross the hazardous Keppel Sound.
The men unpacked and assembled their Klepper canoes. Carefully, they made their way into the freezing water. The Sound, full of spiky rocks and violent currents, was traversed without any incident.
The years of training were paying off.
Once on Pebble, a two-man team detached from the patrol and went forward to set an observation post. For the next two days, they would take turns observing the Argentines and reporting their findings to the Task Force. And their findings were alarming indeed: the Argentinian force of about two hundred men and their eleven aircraft and radar installation posed a direct threat to the Task Force.
The landings on the main Falklands were scheduled for the night of 21 May. The installation, close to the landing beaches, had to be destroyed beforehand.
Pebble Island, a narrow strip of land less than 10-miles long, had been occupied by the Argentine force shortly after the invasion.
There, they had transformed the small civilian airstrip into a threatening airbase with potent radar equipment and several ground-attack Pucaras and T-34 Turbo Mentos. They planned to reinforce the garrison to a strength of four hundred men.
On the morning of 14 May, the SAS captain commanding the reconnaissance patrol sent a coded Morse message back to the fleet, “Eleven aircraft, repeat eleven aircraft. Believed real. Squadron attack tonight” (Ratcliffe).
The Pebble Island raid had just received the green light.
The proximity of the airstrip to a small civilian settlement, excluded the option of an air attack. As a result, it fell to the recently-returned- from-the- frozen-wastes- of-South- Georgia men of SAS D Squadron to conduct the mission.
Since their South Georgia adventures, both the SAS and SBS had been kept quite busy. For almost three weeks, while the Task Force slowly sailed southwards through the rough seas of the south Atlantic, special forces teams had been conducting recce missions in the Falklands.
Their covert reports would be instrumental for the success of the upcoming landings. The raid on Pebble Island was planned for the night of 14/15 May.
They only vessel wherefrom the forty-five SAS raiding party could effective operate was the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. Their allotted time on target, therefore, would be very short—Hermes was too valuable to be found by the Argentinian air force close to the shore once morning arrived.
The night of 14 May was rough. The heavy swells rocked violently the flight deck of Hermes, where the SAS troopers were huddled together. While they waited for the four Sea Kings that would ferry them in, the men made final minute adjustments to their gear.
Each man was carrying a 50-pound bergen and a 30-pound webbing. Their individual weapons consisted of M-16 rifles with 203 grenade launchers attached. Several general-purpose machine guns (GPMGs), LAW 66 anti-tank rockets, high explosive charges (for the aircrafts and radar), and an 81mm mortar would provide further firepower.
Moreover, each man carried 400 to 600 rounds of ammunition for the machine guns, plus two mortar rounds—one high explosive and one white phosphorus. The helicopters emerged from the stomach of the ship. Piloting them, would be the wizards of 846 Squadron, equipped with a rather novel device called night vision googles.
Since time was of the essence, the troopers quickly boarded the choppers. But a mechanical malfunction in one of the Sea Kings caused a further one-hour delay.
Eventually, the metallic rotor blades of the bulky Sea Kings roared into life. They flew in blacked-out conditions; sea level high and almost hugging the waves in order to avoid detection by enemy radar. Their engines had been muffled by prior arrangements, so not to alert the Argentinian sentries—if any of them was disciplined enough to brave the ghastly weather.
The largest SAS raid since the Second World War had begun. The ride was short, yet turbulent.
Major Cedric Delves, D Squadron commander, was anxious to get on dry land and begin the mission, “As soon as we were on land we were masters of our destiny,” he pointed in an interview after the war (BBC).
Carefully, the choppers landed at the prearranged point, 5 miles from the airbase. The commandos swiftly disembarked and set a 360-degree security perimeter. The featureless landscape was engulfed in an eerie mist. The soggy peat beneath their feet made movement difficult—especially with all the gear they were humping.
They made contact with the recce team.
After a fifteen-minute pre-assault brief by the Captain in charge of the recce team, they began to move. It was decided that they wouldn’t follow a tactical approach to their target because of the tight time limit.
Instead, they would tab hard—the SAS and Paras term for rucking, the SBS and Royal Marines use the more linguistically peculiar term of Yomp—with occasional sprints. The plan dictated that the mobility troop of the squadron would destroy the parked aircraft—and thus they carried most of the plastic explosive packages—while the air troop would cover the civilian settlement, with mountain troop on reserve.
Due to the complete darkness and the ironically unconventional—since they were special forces—movement procedures, the raiding party quickly got separated. What’s more, the mobility troop, which was to destroy the aircraft, was lost.
Time was running out and the whole operation hung in the balance.
Such a contingency, however, had been considered during the planning session, and mountain troop, commanded by Captain Gavin Hamilton—who led the Fortuna Glacier patrol in South Georgia, and who was destined to a play a heroic role later in the war—was promptly reassigned as the demolition party. Mobility troop, once they found their way, would stay on reserve.
Soon, they reached the staging point. The mortar team planted its tube of destruction nearby. A cut-off position manned with the GPMGs was set. Each passing trooper left his mortar rounds and ammunition belts for the convenience of the support elements.
The untimely approach of dawn prompted Major Delves to signal the attack. At 07:00, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan, guided by a Royal Marines artillery observer, began raining 4.5-inch shells to the Argentinian barracks.
The pyrotechnics of Glamorgan and the thunderous machine gun and mortar fire of the SAS, deprived the Argentinians of any effective reaction. Indeed, throughout the raid the Argentinian response was conspicuous by its absence.
Amid the chaos of the bombardment, the two seven-man teams of mountain troop navigated their way towards the well dispersed aircraft. Carefully, they placed the explosives charges on the fuselages (the Pucaras were so high from the ground that the commandos had to perform acrobatics to reach them) and braced for the fireworks.
With a deafening bang, the charges went off.
The smoldering metallic carcasses of the aircraft were raked by machine gun fire and anti- tank rockets, in order to obstruct any future attempt by the Argentinian crews to cannibalize them.
Time was running out.
The raid had been planned to take fifteen-minutes. But the abundance of delicious targets and the hunger for action of the troopers made it a forty-five- minute feast. Major Delves had to repeatedly fire the green flare signal of withdraw before everyone was back. They did a quick head count and moved to the extraction point.
On their way out, the assault force suffered its only casualties: two troopers were injured by the detonation of a remote controlled mine. Also, an Argentinian officer tried to mount a response, but was quickly shot by rifle fire.
Moments since reaching the extraction point, the shapes of the four Sea Kings materialized out of the dense mist. They quickly boarded, and the choppers flew to the awaiting Hermes.
By the time they landed, the first rays of sun started penetrating the clouds. They were just in time. A warm cooked English breakfast and hot drinks awaited them. The raid was a complete success.
Indeed, it was a classic SAS mission, reminiscent of the Regiment’s raids in North Africa during the Second World War—where their predecessors destroyed more aircraft on the ground than the Royal Air Force. The airbase’s ammunition and fuel dump were utterly destroyed. The radar installation was a pile of smoking ruins. And the eleven aircraft lay in pieces.
Without the looming danger of the Pebble Island airbase, the landings could proceed safely. Operation Corporate was about to commence.
But before the boots of the Paras and Royal Marines touched the Falklands’ soggy ground, the biggest SAS catastrophe since the Second World War would strike.