- Almost 40 years ago, Argentina and Great Britain’s long dispute over the Falkland Islands escalated.
- The Argentines invaded the South Atlantic islands and the British counterattacked.
- At the core of the British campaign were special-operations troops, who launched one of the largest SAS operations since World War II.
Almost 40 years ago, Argentina and Great Britain went to war for a small patch of land in the South Atlantic.
Their long dispute over the Falkland Islands escalated in 1982, when the Argentines invaded and the British counterattacked.
At the core of the British campaign were special-operations troops: the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS).
During the opening stages of the British effort, the SAS were called in to take out an Argentine airbase that posed a threat to the Royal Navy. Their mission would become one of the largest SAS operations since the end of World War II.
Less than 10 miles long, Pebble Island was located just north of West Falkland, the second-largest of the Falkland Islands.
Pebble Island had a small civilian settlement with its own airstrip. When the Argentines invaded, they discerned the strategic value of the location and quickly went to work upgrading the small airstrip to a potent airbase and early-warning facility.
The Argentine Air Force relocated several aircraft there and built a radar station while planning to deploy hundreds of troops to protect what was becoming a major airbase.
The Pebble Island airbase housed several Argentine Pucara ground-attack aircraft and modified T-34 Turbo Mento aircraft that could damage or sink the cumbersome and slow British amphibious landing ships.
The Argentine Air Force fielded a hodgepodge fleet, including US-made A-4 Skyhawks, French-made Super Etendards and Mirage IIIs, Israeli-made Daggers, and UK-made English Electric Canberras. It was a fearsome and valiant opponent that came very close on its own to winning the conflict for Argentina.
The closeness of the small civilian settlement to the airbase precluded an air attack, so British commanders turned to their special-operations troops.
Although the main British armada was still far away, British special-operations forces had been operating in the Falklands for weeks, conducting reconnaissance operations to prepare the incoming force.
In and out
On the night of May 11, a special-operations Sea King helicopter from the 846 Squadron, the pilots of which had just begun using night-vision goggles, inserted an eight-man team from D Squadron’s boat troop at Keppel Island, a smaller island just across a sound from Pebble Island.
The SAS team was there to find the location and number of Argentine aircraft and their defenses. Their reports would inform their colleagues who were gearing up to assault the airbase.
The SAS reconnaissance team crossed the sound’s freezing waters with Klepper canoes. Once ashore, six men found a hiding position while two commandos went forward and set up an observation post from which they could watch the airbase.
The SAS men rotated shifts between the hiding place and the observation post for the next two days, avoiding Argentine patrols and sending back crucial intelligence.
Meanwhile, the rest of D Squadron, about 45 men, was on standby to conduct the raid. When the reconnaissance was over, they would insert on Pebble Island, link up with the reconnaissance team, and proceed to the target.
The SAS troopers were ready for anything. Besides their individual M-16 rifles, they carried LAW 66 anti-tank rockets, GPMG machine guns, high-explosive satchels, and even an 81 mm mortar.
Each commando carried at least 80 pounds of gear, including 400 to 600 rounds of machine-gun ammunition and two mortar rounds that they would give to the fire-support elements just before the raid began.
The assault force would take off from HMS Hermes, one of the two British aircraft carriers.
Because of the danger posed by the Argentine Air Force and the value of Hermes to the British campaign, the ship couldn’t operate close to the Falklands during daytime. So the SAS troopers had only a few hours to launch, destroy the airbase, and return to the ship before dawn.
The recon team spotted 11 aircraft, which they believed to be real and not decoys, and radioed back. The mission was on.
The raid on Pebble Island
On the night of May 14, three Sea King helicopters inserted the assault force 5 miles from the airbase, where they linked up with the recon element. The mission started an hour late after one of the choppers had a malfunction just before takeoff.
Time was running out, so the SAS troopers ran the 5 miles to the airbase. Some elements got lost on the way, but all were in their positions by 7 am on May 15, when a nearby destroyer started bombarding the Argentine barracks.
This was the signal for the attack, and the SAS got to work, planting explosives on the aircraft and destroying the radar and barracks.
The raid was planned for 15 minutes, but it took 45. By the end, everything had been destroyed, including the 11 aircraft. Two members of the SAS assault force were lightly wounded before getting extracted.
“The operation came at an opportune time. It served, so to speak, as a grand rehearsal before the landings that were scheduled to take place in a few days,” a retired SAS officer told Insider.
“Hitherto, we had conducted mostly recces [reconnaissance operations] in South Georgia and the main [Falkland] islands,” the retired officer said. “Pebble Island presented us with an opportunity to test our combat mettle. It was a basic but brilliant operation worthy of the Regiment’s annals.”
Only a few days after the raid, however, disaster struck. During a routine daylight cross-decking operations between ships, a Sea King helicopter crammed with SAS troopers from D and G Squadrons crashed into the ocean after a bird hit its engines.
Eighteen commandos, some of whom had participated in the Pebble Island raid, were killed in what was the single worst loss of life for the SAS since the end of World War II.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.