Read Part One Here
The ponderous Wessex 5 helicopter cranked and strained under the load of the heavily laden commandos.
Even in ideal flying conditions, the danger would have been considerable with all that weight. And these conditions were far from ideal: a force 10 storm with 100 mile gusts, was raging outside.
Nevertheless, Royal Navy Lieutenant Mike Tidd, managed to lift the mechanical beast off the glacier, and headed north towards the safety of HMS Tidespring. The very same conditions that made the flight so dangerous were the reason for it taking place.
The highly experienced mountain troop of SAS D Squadron had spent the previous fifteen hours travailing under the vicious weather. When one by one its members started to suffer from hypothermia and exposure, the decision had been made for an immediate evacuation.
Within minutes of take-off, the Wessex was engulfed in a tempest of snow. Complete white-out conditions.
Tidd lost sight of the ground and the horizon. The altimeter spun uncontrollably. The upcoming crash seemed inevitable.
The violent impact rocked the men and threw their gear all over the place. The helicopter itself was a pile of smoking metals and twisted cords. Miraculously, neither the two crewmembers nor their six SAS passengers were hurt.
To their rescue came the two other Wessexs of the evacuation force. Although both were straining under the weight of their own human cargo, they split the shaken survivors and managed to cramp them inside their fuselages. Most of the precious kit was left behind.
Laboriously, the two helicopters took-off, and headed towards the awaiting ships, which were waging their own battle with the unforgiving elements of the south Atlantic.
Seconds later they hit a second snow squall.
Unseen, a high glacier ridge loomed in front of them. The first Wessex, piloted by Lieutenant Ian Stanley, managed to overcome the hidden obstacle. His wingman didn’t. For a second time in the span of fifteen minutes, there was a mash of crunched rotor blades and groaning men laying ingloriously on the ground.
Stanley was forced to leave the wreckage and his comrades, for his already crowded Wessex was running low on fuel. After a short and emetic flight, he reached the fleet. Back in the flaming wreckage, the dazed survivors scurried to find shelter from the -25ºC
Astonishingly, no one had been killed or seriously injured.
Stanley, however, was determined to come back for them.
After refueling, he masterfully piloted his trusty Wessex through the blizzard, and reached the stranded men.
Normally, the rescue would have taken two flights, for the number of men was too great for the small helicopter. But the weather conditions dictated otherwise. The whole group of twenty men squeezed on board, and the Wessex once again stormed into the tempest. After a turbulent flight, they safely reached the ships.
For his conspicuous actions, Lieutenant Ian Stanley was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
The first part of Operation Paraquat, the reclamation of South Georgia, had utterly failed at the cost of two valuable helicopters and tons of essential gear. The second part was about to begin.
The operation had begun one day earlier, 21 April, with the insertion of the SAS team on the glacier. And it was the first action of the British Task Force sent to regain the Falkland Islands after the Argentinian invasion of 2 April.
Although 900 miles southeast of the disputed islands, and with little strategic value, South Georgia, nevertheless, offered a unique public relations opportunity for the British government.
The retaking of that distant and unfriendly island would show to the world—and especially to Argentina, which thought Britain was bluffing by sending the Task Force—that they meant business.
Actually, the crisis that ignited the whole conflict had begun in South Georgia.
There, on 19 March, employees of a bogus Argentinian scrap-metal company (supported by marines under disguise) had, in a flagrant act of disregard for British sovereignty, raised the Argentinian flag, and took possession of the mountainous island.
Now, the British were resolute to oust them. The avenging strike of the Empire would come in the hands of the famous Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) troopers.
A small flotilla, therefore, was detached from the main Task Force, and headed towards South Georgia.
The mission of the approximately fifty men of SAS D Squadron and 2 Section SBS was to perform special reconnaissance and surveillance operations in order to provide the position, numbers, and equipment of the Argentinian forces to the assault force of M Company of 42 Royal Marines.
The initial plan entailed the infiltration of SBS teams on the east portion of the island. They SBS and SAS missions in South Georgia.
Then, they would recce their way towards the settlements of Stromness Bay, before setting their own observation posts.
On 21 April, and amid ghastly conditions, the mountain troop of D Squadron landed on the Fortuna Glacier. Carrying 80 pound bergens and pushing 200-pound sleds packed with gear, they tied themselves in teams of fours and tried to get off the glacier. But the foreboding weather had other plans.
Their weapons began to freeze, albeit they had been well oiled. The howling winds hacked their bodies. They only managed to cover half a mile before the troop leader, an experienced Himalayas climber, decided the journey to be too dangerous.
The hard surface of the glacier made it all but impossible to dig in. They tried to set their tents, but they were blown away by the katabatic winds. Their kit was inadequate for the climate. “We weren’t used to operate in such climates,” explains Alan Bell, who served with D Squadron, “jungles and deserts was where we were accustomed to operate in. Eventually, however, we did receive Gore-Tex gear from Delta [Force].”
An evacuation was called for the following day.
Until then they would have to get through the night as best as they could.
The morning of 22 April found the SAS men in a critical condition. Lieutenant Rick Parry, a member of the rescue force, wrote afterwards, “We finally reached the SAS at about 1330. They were in a bit of a state, with ice flecking their noses and lips and their weapons frozen” (Parry).
Ultimately, two of the rescue choppers would crash because of the weather.
While the mountain troop of D Squadron was landing on Fortuna Glacier, on 21 April, the SBS teams, along with the boat troop of D Squadron, tried to insert to their targets by five Gemini inflatable rubber crafts, launched from HMS Antrim.
The sea was rough. And the tightly packed, with men and equipment, boats wobbled violently. The commander of the assault force, however, had to have eyes on the target. And so it was decided that the infiltration was a go.
Almost immediately after the boats were launched—and Antrim had left—the engines in two of them failed. The working boats would have to tow them.
But before they had the chance to properly organize the heavy seas scattered them all over the merciless Atlantic. The three functioning boats managed to safely navigate their way to Hounds Bay.
The damaged boats didn’t.
One of them was blown by the wind into the grey vastness. Its frozen passengers had to paddle with their mess tins for seven hours before they were rescued by a passing helicopter. The other was more fortunate.
After some marrow-chilling hours, they reached land. For the next few days they would lay hidden, unwilling to use their rescue radios in case they compromised the other teams. Now, it was up to the SBS troopers that had landed safely to conduct the mission. But between them and the settlements of Grytviken and Kind Edward Point lay the 8-mile-wide Cumberland Bay. A Bay ominously filled with huge chucks of sharp ice.
They repeatedly tried to cross it but failed. One trooper recalled, “We loaded the boat and made ready for the crossing under darkness. A force seven was blowing and pack ice [sea ice] was on the move. . . you couldn’t see a bloody thing, and the waters were grey and impossible. . .it was decided we would lay up for the night and make another attempt the next day” (Parker).
Yet the next day brought no improvement to the weather. In need for orders, they tried to make radio contact with the ships. They received no answer. The fleet had vanished.
Unbeknownst to them, an Argentinian submarine, the Santa Fe, had been spotted in the area and the task force commander had ordered his ships to disperse.
Thus, the SBS troopers spent the next three days freezing and waiting for an answer to their calls.
Eventually, on 25 April, they made contact with the fleet, and were evacuated soon after. Meanwhile, and after a vigorous three-day submarine hunt, the Santa Fe had been found and crippled by British helicopters. Limping and heavily leaking fluids, she managed to slither into the Grytviken Harbor.
Upon hearing the destruction of the Santa Fe, Major Cedric Delves, the commander of D Squadron, sensed an opportunity and ordered an immediate attack on the Argentinian garrison of Grytviken—which would prove to be where most of the Argentinian troops were concentrated.
The plan, however, was slightly problematic: the assault force of M Company Royal Marines was 400 miles away; the ship carrying them hadn’t returned from the evasive anti-submarine maneuvers.
Nonetheless, showing bold initiative and adhering to the SAS motto “Who Dares Wins,” Delves gathered all available men and divided them into three assault groups.
All in all, the assault force was comprised of seventy-five men. The first group was made up by the boat and mountain troop of SAS D Squadron; the second group by the men of 2SBS; and the third group by an assortment of Royal Marines and support staff.
It’s not in the Special Force mentality to attack a target in broad daylight and without any prior reconnaissance. But time was of the essence, and the Royal Navy was kind enough to support them with a naval bombardment.
Yet, they were unaware that the Argentinian garrison outnumbered them two to one. For a change, the weather was congenial.
The hodgepodge of assault force was to be ferried on six helicopters. The men carried so much ammunition—they believed that once on shore it would be hard to resupply since many of the helicopters were expected to be shot down by the entrenched Argentinians—that it was hard for them to board the awaiting choppers.
Once airborne, the men steeled themselves for the upcoming ordeal. The last phase of Operation Paraquat was about to begin.
Expecting intense anti-aircraft fire, the helicopters flew fast and low. But the maneuver proved unnecessary, for the Argentinian muzzles remained silent.
The men quickly disembarked from the choppers and began their advance into what seemed to be the Argentinian barracks.
Between them and their target lay a 1,000-meter long field. With no cover. Uncharacteristically for Special Forces—but characteristically of determined troops—they charged in the open ground expecting to be quickly scythed down by murderous fire.
Not even a stray shot was fired from the Argentinian positions. Once they reached the end of the field, they were amazed at the sight: the Argentinian garrison was neatly standing at attention with its weapons piled up on the side.
They approached them cautiously. A huge, blond Argentinian officer greeted them. Would they ever be so kind as to accept their honorable surrender? And by the way, they had just run through an active minefield!
The following day, 26 April, the rest of the Argentinian forces on the island capitulated. It took only 23 days for the British to reclaim South Georgia.
And although Operation Paraquat lacked bloodshed, it certainly didn’t lack near-misses, determination, and daring from all involved. It also revealed some crucial faults in the British military apparatus that would eventually prove fatal.
For a start, the unprofessionalism and lack of fighting spirit of the Argentinians helped the British profoundly. Had the Argentinian garrison manned their guns, the assaulting force would have been annihilated.
Already the British were straining their logistics to the limit—they had already lost two helicopters at Fortuna Glacier. And a further loss, with the precious special forces cargo, would have prompted the divergence of additional assets from the main Task Force, thus delaying the main campaign.
Something that was to be avoided at all costs, since the Antarctic winter was approaching fast.
It is improbable, however, to envisage a scenario where the British would have abandoned their attack, since it was more of a public relations campaign than one with strategic value. Another alarming realization was the lack of interoperability not only between the different services, but between the SAS and SBS.
Since the former came from the army and the latter from the Royal Marines, they used different lingo and procedures. And often times it was quite hard to cooperate. Also, the SAS showed a concerning disregard for the advice and opinion of others; something that would eventually create considerable friction in the Task Force.
The fighting deficiencies of the Argentinian soldier, however, did not, by any means, detract from the daring and resilience of the SAS and SBS teams. These men went time and again through some of the worst imaginable conditions in order to perform their mission.
And so ended Operation Paraquat.
Operation Corporate, the main operation for the recapture of the Falklands, was proceeding as planned. Yet before the landings could begin, a looming threat to the Task Force had to be eliminated. And thus, the SAS found themselves engaged in their biggest raid since the end of Second World War.