Milan – RAID SAS – Darwin Settlement. Painting by Daniel Bechennec.
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The high reputation enjoyed by the Special Forces, especially after the 1980 siege at the Iranian embassy in London, had led to a number of proposals for their immediate deployment right at the start of the crisis. Proposals for dramatic action ranged from blowing up Argentine aircraft on the ground to attacks on oil rigs. Nott was said on 3 April to be `firmly of the view that SAS/SBS deployed from SSNs will be the answer to winning back the Falklands.’ On this particular proposition the Navy view-that any diversion of SSNs would detract from their main role of preventing Argentina reinforcing the Falklands by sea-prevailed. Nonetheless, this enthusiasm for Special Forces combined with the evident need to get advanced reconnaissance forces on the ground as soon as possible encouraged their early and piecemeal deployment. The SAS would be responsible for intelligence-gathering on land; the SBS for reconnoitring the beaches. D Squadron on standby for worldwide operations did not wait for official authorisation but flew to Ascension on 5 April, ready to join the Fort Austin. The SAS would have their own communication nets, including their own secure High Frequency and satellite links to the Hereford base, as well as a range of means of tactical communication. SBS units also flew to Ascension as well as sailing in the Conqueror on 5 April, and plans were made to take them on other SSNs. As the SAS plans developed it was envisaged that D Squadron would support operations in South Georgia, before moving on to offensive operations in the Falklands. G Squadron, which followed, arriving in Ascension on 20 April, would be responsible for the main reconnaissance operations on the Falklands.
As the landing began the amphibious group would be inside the Falkland Sound, a haven free of enemy submarines and surface units. Special Forces would have played a vital part in ensuring the integrity of the haven and its approaches. The haven would be maintained by keeping the entrances closed. Units in the Sound would provide local air defence and gunfire support. At this point the forces would be vulnerable but it would take Argentine forces time to react so the major enemy effort was most likely to occur during daylight following the landing. Any surface ships would be detected during their long transit from mainland ports. Submarines would have difficulty penetrating British defence. The force would be prepared for an air attack. As the operation continued Admiral Woodward would wish to withdraw his carriers to seaward where he could use speed and sea room to best advantage whilst carrying out further offensive operations. Naval operations would continue to support landing forces but the emphasis would gradually shift to a resumption of wider battle group operations once the situation ashore permitted.
The third briefing described the actual landing. The force consisted of three RM Commandos and two Battalions of the Parachute Regiment, supported by four batteries of close support artillery, a Royal Engineer Squadron, one battery of Rapier and two troops of Blowpipe and weapons plus logistic elements. The troop lift was provided by twelve Sea King and 20 Wessex helicopters, plus eight Landing Craft Utility and twelve Landing Craft, Vehicles and Personnel (LCVPs). Heavy lift would be provided later by four Chinook helicopters, which would be invaluable in the logistic build up ashore. The disposition of Argentine forces ashore was described, noting that the main enemy strength was in the eastern area. Reference was made to the Pucaras and air defence guns and missiles, and to the opportunities that could have been taken after six weeks to get established ashore and to prepare defended positions. A reserve, at battalion strength although unsupported by artillery, was available, with helicopter lift for up to two companies and so providing a potentially speedy response to a landing.
Of the 14 SBS patrols and 23 SAS patrols presently deployed with the Task Force, 13 had so far been committed to covert reconnaissance and intelligence gathering tasks. They had been operating since early May, all inserted by helicopter and, crucially, so far all undetected. Argentine patrols had been avoided through regular changes in position, the choice of unlikely spots and camouflage. This made possible a more accurate intelligence picture of the enemy’s dispositions. Reconnaissance operations would continue until the landing.
As the landing took place, Special Forces would seek to destroy key enemy assets: radars, the Pucara ground attack aircraft, helicopters, air defence systems, fuel and ammunition; harass the enemy, cause dispersion of forces and reduce his morale; and deceive the enemy as to the location of the main landing. Assuming San Carlos, the amphibious group would enter North Falkland Sound after last light with the key ships of the assault wave consisting of Fearless, Intrepid, Canberra, Norland, Stromness, the five LSLs and Europic Ferry. Some would move right into San Carlos Bay and the landing itself would then be carried out both by landing craft and helicopters. It was planned that the distance to run from ship to shore would not exceed ten miles, and with eight hours of darkness remaining after the approach up to four Commandos/Battalions with limited combat support would be ashore by first light. Provided that the landing continued at full pace the landing force would be well balanced before the day was out, and it would be thoroughly established ashore with seven days’ logistic support after three days. The challenge of defending the amphibious force and the beachhead would begin almost at once. Presuming that could be survived, and the perimeter of the beachhead secured, then the support helicopters would move ashore to operate from a forward air base to be followed by a basic operating strip for the Harriers. The briefing stressed that although the landing of the Commandos in the early waves would be swift the subsequent buildup of logistic supplies, vehicles and ammunition would take some considerable time because almost everything which went ashore had to be lifted into its operational position by helicopter-movement by vehicles would be almost impossible except around the settlement areas.
At this point the weather intervened in an unusually helpful way, as 19 May turned out to be clear and calm, allowing 40 Commando to be transferred to Fearless and 3 Para to Intrepid by LCUs. The movement of so many men and their equipment from one ship to another carried its own risks, a point tragically illustrated when the transfers were almost at an end as an 846 Squadron Sea King 4 taking SAS troops from Hermes to Intrepid, ditched after a birdstrike. Eight survivors, including the two pilots, were picked up but the aircraft had turned over and sunk almost immediately. 21 SAS troops, including a number who had survived the glacier in San Georgia, and the RM aircrewman were killed. Also lost were the SAS’s RAF Forward Air Controller and his laser designation equipment. The replacement target marker only barely arrived in time for the first ever use of a laser-guided weapon by the RAF just before the fall of Stanley. In noting that the weather had been kind, as otherwise the cross decking could not `have been completed in twice the time’, Woodward observed how `the price has to be paid possibly due to equipment failure or pilot error but almost always in human life’.
The deception plan had three aspects. Operation TORNADO was designed to convey the impression that the major focus of the British effort was close to Stanley. The area between Stanley and Choiseul Sound was to be bombarded for about four days in order to harass but also to deceive, to orientate Argentine commanders towards that area, as the likely landing spot. This was reinforced by spoof communications and air activity. The deception plan had started with a leak of strategic signals about a forthcoming operation code name TORNADO, a reference to a `large combined operation against mainland and Falkland Islands targets to be launched in near future’. The deception would be followed by air activity over the area, the insertion of an SBS patrol, who would talk to locals leaking the spoof and then leave some landing gear in the area, naval gunfire, further leaks on the inadequacy of naval air defences and then dummy insertions of reconnaissance patrols, possible Vulcan strikes against mainland air bases, and a general sense of frantic activity all designed to create a sense of urgency around 20 May, the day before the real landing was planned. This had involved Glamorgan taking up a position off the Stanley peninsula and bombarding positions on Lively Island and at coastal points either side of the entrance to Choiseul Sound. A Wessex helicopter operated off the coast, and a communications deception plan was implemented. Second, D Squadron SAS was tasked to create a diversion in the Darwin area to occupy the attention of enemy forces in that area.
At Goose Green SAS observers saw six Pucaras preparing for takeoff. They called in gunfire from Ardent onto the airfield. Only one aircraft got airborne and it was later shot down by an SAS Stinger, although not before it had reported on the activity in San Carlos Water. It was this report, combined with those from the troops retreating from Fanning Head, which led the Argentine headquarters to decide that San Carlos required closer investigation than the areas closer to Stanley and to Goose Green from where activity had also been reported.