The SAS raid on the airfield at Pebble Island
The SAS raid on the airfield at Pebble Island - 14th May 1982
The long narrow shape of Pebble Island lies east to west across the western approaches to Falkland Sound. On 23 April, an Argentine aircraft landed on the airstrip there near the settlement which was home to the 25-strong farming community, supposedly to deliver the mail. One of the occupants of the aircraft surveyed the strip, walking some length along the main runway. A few hours later a UH-1 helicopter landed on the strip, depositing an Argentine Army patrol who then marched into the settlement and demanded that all radio transmitters of any kind be handed over. The leader of the soldiers stated that the occupying forces would send a patrol to Pebble Island from time to time, but otherwise they would be completely cut off from the outside world, a worrying prospect for the islanders as they would have no communications in case of emergency.
Only the following day the initial statement regarding the future of Pebble Island was proved a lie. A Short Skyvan twin-engined transport aircraft of Prefectura Naval Argentina, the Argentine Coastguard, landed on the airstrip, and disgorged a large party of Argentine Air Force ground personnel. This was followed by a number of T-34C-1 Turbo Mentor training and light ground-attack aircraft from 4 Escuadrilla de Ataque, who began patrol and training flights almost immediately. Over the next week stores and provisions were brought in before on 30 April the first Pucara twin-engined ground attack fighters from Grupo 3 de Ataque arrived on the strip. The airfield was now home to an estimated 150 Argentine personnel, and the local population were practically confined to their houses by these men, except for trips to gather food. The Argentine personnel were very nervous for three reasons, the strip and preparations were unfinished, the expected garrison of 400 troops were not in place, and they were expecting an attack by the British against what was now the only major Argentine position on West Falkland and its islands. They did not have long to wait.
On the night of 11/12 May an eight man patrol team from Boat Troop D Squadron 22nd Regiment SAS were landed by Sea King on Keppel Island, south of the western end of Pebble. The helicopter landed between Mount Keppel and Cove Hill, screening the event from Argentinian forces on Pebble Island. The eight men were carrying canoes as well as their full equipment, and yomped overland to a point near the abandonned airstrip on the eastern end of Keppel Isand. Here an Observation Point was set up to ascertain the movement of Argentine troops on Pebble, particularly in the area the SAS troopers intended to canoe across too. They remained here for twenty-four hours on watch, before continuing their journey by canoe on the evening of 13 May across the dangerous Keppel Sound. The current and tides in this stretch of water were extremely hazardous, but the team had been well briefed and avoided the worst of the difficulties. Immediately on landing on Pebble Island, a two-man team went forward almost half the length of the island to First Mount, which overlooked the airstrip and the settlement. An Observation Point was set up, and detailed surveillance began, locating the ammunition and fuel dumps, as well as the important radar equipment, which could detect any attempt at a concealed approach by the British Task Force. This indeed was the whole point of the attack, the radar and the Pucaras represented a serious threat, and had to be eliminated as the island lay close to the approach routes to the intended landing area.
The wind had risen during the day of the 14 May, and since it was intended that the main force to attack the airfield be landed by helicopter there was general concern about the ability of the Sea Kings to operate at long range. The task group of ships to support the attack were the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan and the frigate HMS Broadsword. The three warships approached Pebble Island from the north as darkness fell on the night of 14 May, but HMS Broadsword's Sea Wolf system, the only long-range air defence for the group, became defective. HMS Broadsword fell further and further behind the line of advance in the terrible weather as her crew tried to fix the vital system. HMS Glamorgan slowly closed to within only seven miles of the coast of Pebble to provide naval gunfire support, and the incredibly valuable, and therefore vulnerable HMS Hermes closed to within forty miles of the coast, much closer than planned, to give the 846 Squadron Sea Kings a fighting chance in the high winds. Considering that Pebble Island was much closer to the Argentine mainland than any previous foray by the carriers, this was a calculated risk and a very brave manoeuvre. The party ashore radioed that all the targets had been identified with eleven aircraft on the airfield, and recommended that the raid take place that night. They marked out landing sites for the helicopters that would ferry the 48 troopers of D Squadron 22nd Regiment SAS and one naval gunfire expert, and all was ready.
The Naval Gunfire Support Forward Observer (NGSFO) was none other than Captain Chris Brown RA from 148 Battery of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, the same officer who had performed no small wonders in the re-capture of South Georgia. He would be directing the 4.5 inch guns of HMS Glamorgan in direct support of the SAS raid. The Sea King HC4 pilots flew into the landing zone using passive night vision goggles and the SAS team split up into an assault group and support group to give covering fire. The landing had been delayed by the weather, and the troopers had a long march with their full equipment as well as the mortars and rounds for them. As a consequence the original plan to contact the settlers before the attack had to be abandonned as there was no time. The mortar base was set up, and the General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs) arranged to cover the approaches from the settlement and the settlement itself where it was known the bulk of the Argentine forces were taking shelter from the weather.
Early in the morning of the 15 May, HMS Glamorgan began delivering 4.5 inch shells at the rate of one a minute under the direction of Captain Brown. The GPMG teams opened fire and kept the Argentine troops pinned down in the settlement area, while their colleagues went to work on the airfield. Using plastic explosive with short fuses, the SAS teams led by Captain John Hamilton destroyed all eleven aircraft, six Pucaras, four Turbo Mentors and the Short Skyvan, as well as the radar installation, fuel and ammunition dumps. The aircraft were attacked with teams destroying the same area of each to prevent the Argentines from assembling flyable aircraft from canibalising the wrecks. With the resounding success of the raid, the teams began to withdraw at 0745 in the morning.
By this time, the Argentines had managed to organise a response, and a sharp firefight began. The officer rallying the Argentine troops was identified and promptly shot, and the counter-attack dwindled almost immediately. The withdrawal then continued almost unopposed, except for the detonation of a remotely controlled mine which was set off too late to have any real effect, but managed to slightly wound two of the SAS troopers. The entire force boarded their helicopters without loss, and returned to the Task Force, having crippled the base, and ended any threat it and it's aircraft posed to the proposed landings.