Falklands War: SAS role in the conflict

HMS Sheffield on fire
Image caption HMS Sheffield was abandoned after it was hit by a French-made Exocet missile, killing 20 of its crew

When HMS Sheffield was destroyed by an Exocet missile 30 years ago, Britain's Special Air Service (SAS) was mobilised to take out the Argentine aircraft which carried them - one of a number of daring missions at the heart of the Falklands War. Here, those at the sharp end of the special forces operations recall the highs and lows.

After 30 years of counter-terrorism work in minor conflicts, the SAS grabbed the chance to engage in its first large-scale conflict since World War II with both hands.

HMS Sheffield was patrolling at the edge of the British fleet in the South Atlantic on 4 May 1982 when it was hit by the Exocet, killing 20 of its crew. The newly acquired French-made weapons were highly effective and threatened a humiliating defeat for the British fleet.

To counter the threat, the SAS was called in to destroy the Super Etendard aircraft which carried the Exocets. They were based at Rio Grande on the Argentine mainland, 400 miles west of the Falkland Islands.

Operation Mikado aimed to fly 55 SAS men on to the heavily defended base in two C130 Hercules transport aircraft, keeping the engines running while they carried out the attack.

It was a daring mission. If they were able to take off again, they would head for a base in Chile; if not, the surviving SAS and aircrew would have to flee into the mountains on foot.

Because the Hercules could not carry enough fuel to return to base, it was a one-way trip with no route home, and the SAS soldiers were deeply sceptical about their chances of success.

Nicknaming it "operation certain death", they said it amounted to a suicide mission.

Robin Horsfall, who is now 55, was among the elite B Squadron soldiers chosen for the operation. He told the BBC that they had all believed they would be killed or captured.

"We were written off to save our capital ships. I remember it well - my wife was eight months pregnant," he said. "We didn't at any time question the mission, we questioned how to do it successfully, which was our right."

He said the SAS wanted to parachute in "off target" to avoid landing on the runway, but were overruled higher up the chain of command. He said that after one heated exchange, a staff sergeant who expressed his views was fired for being negative.

"You wear the cap badge, and when the time comes to earn it, you have to accept it. In many cases it is special forces' job to die to achieve a military and political objective, you just hope you're not going to be the one," he said.

"If you're not prepared to die, you're a bluffer. I accepted it."

In advance of the main raid, volunteers were sought for a one-way mission in a Sea King helicopter to drop off an SAS team, observe the base and report back.

Codenamed Operation Plum Duff, the high-risk night raid needed a pilot - and after much soul searching, Richard Hutchings - who subsequently became a colonel in the armed forces - stepped forward. He would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his valour.

"You've got these conflicting priorities in your mind. I was the best-qualified pilot to do this, and the only one who was a soldier and SAS-trained. I had to make myself available," he said.

"But I also had a wife and two young children, and weighing up one against the other was not easy."

He said his cabin floor was covered in screwed up sheets of A4 paper as he wrote two "final letters home" - one to his wife and one to his parents.

During the mission on 17 May, Col Hutchings, his crew of two, and an eight-man SAS team were 50 miles from the Argentine coast when he had to divert after flying through a well-lit gas field he did not know was there.

On reaching the coast, thick fog descended, and with no visual reference points to navigate he was forced to land - seven miles from the intended drop-off point.

Two SAS men jumped out of the helicopter just as their commander aborted the mission, and after the pair had been ordered back inside, Col Hutchings headed to Chile to drop the entire team off then destroy the aircraft.

The crew made holes in the helicopter and tried to sink it in the sea, but it remained afloat, so Col Hutchings crashed it into the beach instead.

"I poured gallons of petrol around inside... and after jettisoning the remaining fuel, threw a flare into the aircraft, and it went up in a ball of fuel in seconds," he said.

"We destroyed our night-vision goggles, threw our weapons into the sea and set off on foot into the countryside."

The Sea King "crash" was a cover story aimed at safeguarding Operation Mikado, and the crew was under orders to evade capture for eight days.

The Chilean authorities, who were friendly to the British, eventually caught up with them and they were questioned, released and flown back to the UK via Spain.

With the element of surprise lost, and after British intelligence discovered Argentina's radar system was better than had originally been thought, Operation Mikado was scrapped.

But this was just one part of the British special forces' involvement in the Falklands War.

Weeks before the first regular British soldiers arrived on the Falkland Islands, four-man SAS and Special Boat Service (SBS) patrols were flown in at night to hide up and report back on enemy positions.

The reconnaissance teams were highly exposed with no natural cover, concealing themselves for days and weeks at a time in shallow ditches covered in camouflage nets and soil.

One patrol even hid in the wreckage of a ship, reporting on enemy air and sea movements around Port Stanley via satellite phone - a new technology at the time.

"We were literally flying blind, picking out routes around areas where we felt there were unlikely to be Argentine troops."

Colonel Hutchings, then a young lieutenant, flew seven missions in less than three weeks in Sea King helicopters, flying as low as 20ft (6m) at times to avoid enemy radar. "From time to time we needed to resupply. We'd fly back using different routes, they would hand over bergens full of leftover food and dead batteries, and we'd hand over new supplies," he said.

The SAS patrols eventually called in Harrier jet strikes against Argentine helicopter bases and a fuel dump near Goose Green, which restricted the enemy's movement.

One of the most notable SAS raids of the 74-day conflict left six Argentine ground-attack Pucara aircraft burning on a grassy airstrip on Pebble Island, a remote spot on the north coast of West Falkland.

An air strike had been ruled out because of the site's proximity to civilians, so 42 SAS men in three Sea King helicopters were dispatched to eliminate the threat posed by the Pucaras.

Amid supporting fire from HMS Glamorgan, the assault teams assaulted the airstrip and blew up the planes, choosing the same section of each aircraft to avoid any later reconstruction from spare parts.

"It was the best example ever of a combined operation special forces mission since World War II," said Col Hutchings, who flew one of the helicopters on the mission in near-hurricane winds.

But he said events on 15 May 1982 did not run like clockwork because the bad weather delayed the Sea Kings' departure.

"The mission originally had been the destruction of the aircraft and the killing of the service personnel, but because we were running late their lives had to be spared," he said.

"Some of the pilots that survived could have been redeployed, but there had to be last-minute replanning.

"In special forces operations, it's the spur of the moment decisions that win the day or not, not the planners at Hereford."

A few days after Pebble Island, the SAS lost 18 men in a Sea King crash - the most fatalities suffered by the regiment in a single day since World War II.

The helicopter had been attempting to land on HMS Intrepid when it ditched in the sea, killing the SAS soldiers and four others. Some got out but most drowned.

The cause remains unclear but has been blamed on both a bird strike and mechanical failure.

Robin Horsfall recalled: "People knew them and were sad about it, then you're stoic and get on with your job. In a war of that nature, everyone was taking casualties."

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