By no means could the pilot have seen the flock of birds. Even less avoid them with such heavy cargo. Helicopter operations are always dangerous—especially in the middle of the South Atlantic winter. The crash killed eighteen men.
Just three days before the main landings, 19 May, a helicopter crash had caused the worst SAS loss of life since the Second World War.
But before this catastrophe, and even before the raid on Pebble Island, British special forces had been active on the Islands for close to three weeks. For the landings to be successful the ground force commanders needed to have eyes on the Falklands.
Many questions needed urgent answers: what were the conditions of the beaches’? How many landing crafts could they support simultaneously? What was the best route for the landing crafts? Where exactly was the enemy? His fortifications? His weaponry? His morale?
Thus, they turned to the only units that could provide answers to these essential questions: the SAS and SBS.
Beginning in the early morning hours of 1 May, several patrols from the two units were inserted by 846 Squadron’s specially configured Sea King helicopters. They mainly operated in areas of interest such as San Carlos Bay, Darwin, Goose Green, Teal Inlet and indeed any place with strategic value.
Setting observation posts, they diligently observed the Argentinian movements and reported them back to their respective headquarters. With the troopships carrying the Task Force approaching fast after their Ascension Island interval, and with a yet unknown date for the landings, it was vital for the patrols to gather as much intelligence as quickly as possible.
Directly opposing this urgency was the abominable Falklands’ soil and the secrecy factor. Vast and exposed, riddled with rocks and small, sloping hills, the moorland of the Falklands not only denied any fast movement but also offered scant cover.
Moreover, with noisy helicopters as the only available method of insertion—a conventional submarine, from which the SBS marines and the SAS boat troops could operate, would have helped considerably, yet the only available, HMS Onyx, was still thousands of miles away—the special forces patrols had to be dropped off far away, a four nights’ march, from their targets.
So once inserted, the commandos would navigate through the soggy Falklands’ peat by night and hid in their makeshift hideouts by morning. And this pattern offered some close calls indeed.
The Argentines were aware that the British would try to insert special forces before any landings took place. Patrols, helicopters and aircraft, therefore, were employed vigorously in an effort to flush them out.
In one particular incident, an Argentinian helicopter, unbeknownst to its crew, had hovered exactly on top of an SBS observation post. The soil and tufts that had been used to build it were blown away, yet amazingly the SBS men remained undetected—for once, the similarity of the terrain had proved helpful!
Meanwhile, the commanders had decided that the landings would take place on 21 May. And if they were to succeed, it was crucial to conduct diversionary raids.
On the night of 20 May, a reinforced SBS troop, with the addition of an SAS mortar detachment, would attack Fanning Head, a hill overlooking the path of the landing craft. The combined force of twenty-five SBS and SAS would use the destroyer HMS Antrim as a staging point.
Quite disproportionate for their numbers, their firepower (twelve GPMGs, 66mm anti-tank rockets, grenade launchers, and even naval gunfire support from the ship) ensured that the Argentine defenders didn’t have a fighting chance.
Moreover, they had an ace up their sleeve: a thermal imager.
Hitherto, this novel device had been undergoing experimental use by the British police, shrewdly however, the military recognized its potential worth in active operations, and acquired one such device.
The heavily armed force was dropped off a few miles off target. Tactically advancing, they quickly reached the Argentinian perimeter. Even in this darkest of nights, the unaware Argentinian defenders were easily visible through the thermal imager.
A Spanish speaking officer accompanying the raid force asked for the Argentinian surrender through a bullhorn. Machine-gun fire was the only response he received.
The overwhelming firepower of the combined force, however, quickly silenced any Argentinian resistance.
While the Fanning Head raid was taking place, forty troopers from SAS D squadron were conducting a similar diversionary raid on the settlements of Darwin and Goose Green, about 15 miles southeast from the landing beaches.
Prior reconnaissance had revealed a potent Argentine presence. Like the Fanning Head force, they were ferried in by helicopters, this time launched from HMS Intrepid.
The SAS troopers had, again like the Fanning Head force, a disproportionate firepower for their numbers (mortars, GPMGs, grenade launchers, and even Milan anti-tank rockets).
Inserted a few miles off target, the SAS advanced towards the enemy. Once in position, they opened a thunderous fire at the Argentinian defenders, who in the morning would claim that they were attacked by a full battalion of more than 600 men!
Successfully diverting Argentinian attention from the landings that were taking place a few miles to the north, and suffering no casualties, the men prepared to withdraw. By now dawn had set and with it came the first Argentinian response: Pucara ground attack aircraft—like those destroyed at the Pebble raid by the same men—flew overhead and headed towards the beaches.
Spotting the SAS force, one of them broke formation and banked hard towards them. The SAS troopers dug for cover. One of them, however, remained firm.
Slowly, the former New Zealand SAS trooper aligned his shoulder-fired Stinger missile—a valuable contribution from Delta Force—and with a deafening whoosh, turned the approaching aircraft into a mash or flaming wreckage.
How the SAS got their hands on the Stingers—since the British Army didn’t have them in its inventory—is an interesting story. According to Alan Bell, who served in the conflict with D Squadron’s air troop, “After the war began, one of the guys was sent to Delta to receive simulator training on the Stinger, and then parachuted in the water while the Task Force was underway. Then, he provided a one-day training for the rest of the Squadron.”
Unfortunately, the trooper was one of those killed in the helicopter crash of 19 May.
After this impressive demonstration, the men began to march northwards, linking with the landing forces after a grueling 20 miles’ march.
Soon, Lynx helicopters carried them back to HMS Intrepid.
With a secure beachhead, it was now time for the British forces to begin their advance towards the capital, Stanley, where most of the 10,000 Argentines soldiers laid. First, however, they had to cross the whole of the East Falkland. But, with not enough helicopters to go around, the marines and paras would have to march the whole distance.
Meanwhile, the SAS were tasked with a new mission. They would be flown approximately 40 miles behind enemy lines and capture Mount Kent.
More of a tall hill than a mountain, Mt. Kent was located a few miles west of Stanley. Its capture would give the British Commanders a vital observation post deep within enemy lines. On 25 May, D Squadron Commander, Major Cedric Delves, along with three other troopers was inserted on top of the mountain in order to recce the ground before the arrival of the main force.
They found strong Argentinian presence all around.
After two nights, on 27 May, the rest of the Squadron with all its gear was ferried in by four Sea Kings. Mist covered everything. The lead pilot, wrongly assuming that they were in the right place, gave the signal to disembark. The heavily laden men clambered out, and the helicopters left for the safety of the ships.
No one was there to meet them.
An alarming thought crossed the troopers’ minds: they might be lost. Men were sent to all four compass bearings in an attempt to establish contact with the OP. Quickly returning, the verified their fears. Furthermore, the misty weather obstructed any radio communication with the ships.
Their situation was precarious, to say the least.
After many fruitless attempts, they managed to make contact with HMS Intrepid, and choppers were sent to extract them. They had spent four freezing hours in the middle of nowhere. Once on board the ship, and after the debrief, they realized that they had been dropped off almost 15 miles from where they should have. They would have to try again.
The following night they were inserted in the correct position. Quickly, they made contact with the recce team. But by now the Argentinians were nowhere to be found; all that the SAS found was hastily abandoned trenches and machine-gun positions.
Nonetheless, and anticipating an immediate, organized counterattack from the Stanley forces, the SAS took defensive positions all around the mountain. The attack never came.
What did come, however, were several Argentinian special forces patrols. During the subsequent days, D Squadron endured artillery barrages and fought fierce actions, with fading ammunition, and amid frigid temperatures and blasting winds.
After a few days, reinforcements in the form of a Royal Marines company arrived, and the SAS force was evacuated back to HMS Intrepid.
The next mission for the indefatigable men of D Squadron was to set OPs in the West Falkland.
With the main campaign taking place in the East Falkland, it was crucial to monitor the Argentinian forces in the West to see if they would attempt to reinforce their comrades. Therefore, two four-man recce teams would be inserted.
Leading one of them was the by now well-known Captain Ian Hamilton—he had been the patrol leader of the Fortuna Glacier mission in South Georgia, and the troop commander responsible for destroying the aircraft at Pebble Island.
Scheduled to last seven days, the mission was a classic SAS reconnaissance. The heavy-laden men, carrying 90-pound Bergens, were ferried to their separate targets by a Sea King on the night of 5 June.
After setting up their OP, Ian Hamilton’s patrol observed its target for several days through some awfully cold weather and reported its findings back to the Task Force. With rations running out, they prepared for extraction.
In the process, however, they were spotted by a twenty-man Argentinian patrol. A vicious firefight ensued. In an attempt to give his men a chance of escaping, Captain Hamilton drew the attention of the more numerous Argentinians. He was mortally wounded in the process; and one of the troopers was captured—the only SAS POW of the war. The two other troopers escaped.
For his bravery, Captain Ian Hamilton was awarded the Military Cross.
Meanwhile, the second patrol was enduring its own adventure. Like Hamilton’s patrol they had been observing their Argentinian target for seven days and radioing their intelligence back to the Task Force. As the days were passing their rations were dwindling.
The promised extraction, which was to come in the seventh day, never came. Starving, the men began to go through their emergency rations. Ultimately, they were to endure another five days in the frigid landscape, surviving only on chocolates and cold pudding. The men were eventually evacuated only after the Argentine surrender on 14 June.
A few days before, however, a tragic incident had occurred.
It was the during the dark night of 2 June, when two patrols, one from the SAS and one from the SBS, had found themselves in the same area near the settlement of Teal Inlet. Tactical procedures dictated that each patrol had a buffer zone around them, which no friendly units should approach without first establishing contact, yet the featureless terrain of the Islands made map navigation extremely hard.
Thus, while yomping through the Falkland mud, the four SBS had, unknowingly, walked into the buffer zone of an SAS patrol. The patrol leader, Sergeant Hunt, sensed that something wasn’t right and signaled them to stop. He cautiously advanced forward with another man.
“Halt!” screamed a voice from the dark.
Before they had time to identify themselves as British, the camouflaged SAS patrol opened up with everything they had. The SBS marines instantly ducked to the ground but one of them a second too late. Sergeant Ian Hunt was the only SBS casualty of the war.
Argentinian special forces patrols were known to be searching the vast, featureless terrain of the Islands for their British counterparts. And once the SAS patrol heard the approaching SBS marines, they thought just that.
This unfortunate incident highlighted the dangers of faced by SOF units and provided further strain on the fragile relationship between the two units. “It wasn’t a good time. We weren’t properly coordinated,” says Alan Bell, who knew and was a personal friend of Sgt. Hunt.
Although it caused an epic brawl between troopers from the two units upon a returning ship of the Task Force, it led to increased cooperation between the two units in the future. By now the paras, marines, and soldiers of the Task Force were within eyesight of Stanley, and only one thing was left for the SAS and SBS to do: reconnoiter the capital before the final push.
On the night of 13/14 June, the last night of the war, a combined force of SAS/SBS was inserted into Port Stanley harbor by four Rigid Raider Crafts (RRCs). Their mission was to divert the attention of the Argentinians from 2 Para’s attack on nearby Wireless Ridge.
Slowly approaching through the calm waters, they were suddenly illuminated by the powerful searchlights of a moored Argentinian hospital ship. The men stood no chance.
Machine gun fire, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and even artillery was used against them. The Royal Marine coxswains, however, quickly reversed the boats, and made a good escape. Miraculously no one was killed; but an SBS corporal and two SAS troopers were wounded.
The next day, 14 June, the Argentinians capitulated and thus ended the special forces war on the Falkland Islands.
But while all of these operations were taking place, the SAS had been engaged in an operation of such a covert nature that it would be denied by the British Government for decades to come.
An attack on Argentina herself.