Although Operation Plum Duff had utterly failed to deliver any information about the whereabouts of the Exocets and Super-Etendards, the SAS leadership in Hereford still lobbied for Operation Mikado to take place.
The SAS’s charm among the higher political and military echelons was omnipotent. On 25 May, while the SAS patrol was freezing at the bridge waiting for their liaison and while the Sea King aircrew was being found by the Chileans, two Argentine Super-Etendards attacked MV Atlantic Conveyor with two Exocets and sunk it.
The supply ship was carrying ammunition for the landing forces and bombs for the Harriers. Its most important cargo, however, were the Wessex and Chinook helicopters that were destined to airlift the ground forces towards Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. With their transport method at the bottom of the cold Atlantic, the marines and paras would have to walk the whole length of the East Falkland to reach their objectives.
Furthermore, the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor made imperative the need for Operation Mikado to take place.
Five days later, 30 May, the thus far catastrophic combination of the Super-Etendard and the Exocet mounted yet another attack at the British ships. Again, aiming at the aircraft carriers, the missile barely missed the frigate HMS Avenger, and hit the water. For those keeping score on the British side, that ought to be the last of the Exocets (two against HMS Sheffield, two against MV Atlantic Conveyor, and the final one against the Avenger).
The logical assumption, therefore, would be that since the Argentines didn’t have any more air-launched Exocets—and the British had ensured that was the case after intense diplomatic lobbying and discreet black market purchases—Operation Mikado wouldn’t have to take place.
The SAS were inclined to disagree, however. The suspicion that the SAS high command wanted an opportunity to further decorate the already-illustrious regimental history with more epic actions was quickly gaining ground. Nevertheless, Operation Mikado would proceed as planned.
And what a plan it was.
Two C-130s of 47 Squadron RAF, would take off from Ascension Island and head south. A VC-10 tanker would meet them in route, and they would refuel in formation—the C-130s had been configured for refueling operations only after war broke out, and the pilots’ training on this very dangerous art was limited to desperately few hours.
Once close to the Falklands, they would approach east of the islands in order to avoid the Argentines radars and any patrolling aircraft. They then would descend at 50 feet for the final 380 miles until Tierra del Fuego. Once over land, the specially configured C-130s would continue their westerly heading towards Chile. Utilizing as cover the surrounded-by- mountains Lake Fagnano, they aimed to mask themselves from the nearby radar of the Rio Grande airbase.
After entering Chilean airspace, they would break hard right and fly northwards for a few miles. Then, they would reenter Argentinian airspace by breaking again hard right, and approach Rio Grande from the west.
Hoping that the airbase’s radar didn’t spot them, the two aircraft would land, and the troopers, mounted on pink panther jeeps and motorcycles, would storm their targets. For the fifteen minutes that the operation was planned to take, the C-130’s engines would keep running, waiting for the return of the SAS.
In the, quite logical, likelihood that the Argentine defenders shot at and destroyed the vulnerable aircraft, the surviving SAS troopers and crewmembers would, separately, make their way to Chile by foot– with the whole Argentinian garrison in hot pursuit. All of these at night. And based upon a 1937 topographic map.
It is no wonder, therefore, that since its initial inception Operation Mikado had been received somewhat negatively by the SAS rank and file. While rehearsing for the operation at Ascension Island, the seventy troopers of B Squadron that would perform the raid had rebranded it as Operation Certain Death.
And the discontent transcended the ranks.
Raising logical concerns about the feasibility and practicality of the mission—losing a whole SAS Squadron plus two invaluable C-130s and their aircrews for a mission without prior reconnaissance—the commanding officer of B Squadron was sacked by Brigadier de la Billière, the SAS Director, and replaced with a more ‘optimistic’ officer; the senior enlisted NCO of the Squadron quit.
Despite all the detailed planning and the different contingencies examined, no one seemed to acknowledge the fact that killing unarmed pilots was against the Geneva convention. Moreover, by attacking Argentina mainland, the British were risking losing the ever-essential media and diplomatic war that had been raging with almost equal ferocity since the beginning of the Argentinian invasion of 2 April.
After being on stand-by for too many times, the troopers of B Squadron were informed, on 3 June, about the final cancellation of Operation Mikado. Reason had prevailed.
Many people, from within and outside the SAS, believed that the main motive behind Hereford’s insistence for Operation Mikado to take place was the preserve the “SAS myth” of audacious and dashing operations.
Since its early days fighting the Germans and Italians in the vast deserts of North Africa, the regiment had achieved some remarkable feats of valor. For such a unique organization, reputation was everything—the televised raid on the Iranian embassy two years earlier hadn’t been beneficial for some egos.
And with every new success the influence that the Regiment exerted upon the political and military higher echelons soared.
“People sitting back in England, thought that we walked on water, that we were invincible,” says Alan Bell, who served with D Squadron during the conflict. But such an attitude caused widespread resentment from within the military. The elitist attitude that they quite often showed—unlike their SBS brethren—didn’t win them many fans.
Brigadier Ian Gardiner, who as a Royal Marines Captain commanded an X-Ray Company of 45 Royal Marines during the war pointed that, “the SBS were conversant with the many complexities of amphibious and littoral operations [but] the SAS were not. It also seemed that they were not open to expert advice on cold weather warfare. Moreover, they were used to communicating only with their HQ in the U.K. These factors contributed to the near-disastrous start of the South Georgia operation.”
Yet, many in the SAS have attributed this accusation of elitism to the mysterious nature of their profession. In an interview with NEWSREP, Alan Bell, an SAS officer who fought in the war, said that the cause for any resentment from within the military was because, “it was the first time the SAS had worked with conventional forces. They didn’t know how to use us. We did the best we could, but the conventional people didn’t know how to use us. And if you add in the equation our relaxed grooming standards and fancy gear, that’s what you get.”
The fact that there wasn’t a debrief within the SAS after the war was also striking. “Because of the many mistakes made during the campaign,” explains Alan Bell, “the higher echelons of the SAS decided that we wouldn’t have an official debrief. No one likes to parade his failures. A lot of things went wrong. But a lot of things went also right. We were very surprised by this and asked questions for months. Yet, the response was always the same: no debrief will take place.”
One may say that the SAS were arrogant. One may even say that they were scornful of other’s advice. One, however, cannot say that they didn’t perform to the best of their ability. And not just them. Along with their SBS brethren, the SAS managed to further expand the celebrated reputation of British special forces.
A reputation that is still respected worldwide.
A reputation that their modern successors have worked hard to maintain in the mountains and deserts of the Middle East.