Falklands: Why an SAS raid – nicknamed 'Operation Certain Death' – never happened

Following the attack on HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, SAS commandos were called in to organise a mission to take out Argentina's remaining Exocet missiles. 

Operation Mikado was nicknamed "Operation Certain Death" by many as it involved landing two C-130 Hercules aircraft 2,000ft apart on a runway at an airbase in Argentina.

This would then allow SAS personnel to jump out, attack and disable the aircraft carrying the Exocet missiles.

Early issues

The Argentian Exocet missile attacks on Royal Navy ships became a serious concern during the 1982 Falklands conflict.

A raid was devised by the SAS, who were called in to destroy the Super Etendard – the aircraft that carried the missiles that had already sunk HMS Sheffield - at the Rio Grande Airfield on the Argentinian mainland. 

An early issue for Britain's C-130 Hercules was the long flight.

Former Royal Air Force 47 Squadron Hercules pilot Harry Burgoyne said: "Problems that we had with that was this was going to be a 13-hour flight all the way round [from Ascension Island and back].

"And it wasn't entirely clear where we were going to go should we survive the landings.

"For me, where we were going to go after we landed was not really a major thought because I didn't see us surviving the landing," he added.

Air-to-air refuelling was essential for C130 Hercules transport aircraft whilst attempting Argentinian raid operations DATE UNKNOWN CREDIT Harry Burgoyne.png
The huge distances involved meant that air-to-air refuelling was essential – something the C-130 Hercules was not designed for (Picture: Harry Burgoyne).

The huge distances involved meant that air-to-air refuelling was essential – something the Hercules was not designed for.

It was swiftly adapted but required an unusual refuelling technique.

SAS B Squadron's Ian 'Chalky' White said: "You refuel it with the only aircraft that we had... these huge great planes that they used to refuel the Vulcan bombers with.

"And they are jets, obviously, and we're in a turboprop. So you get to that point where the Hercules can't go fast enough and the jet refueller can't go slow enough."

According to Chalky, the jet would have to fly in front of the Hercules and then go into a shallow dive allowing for the Hercules to get the speed up to connect – during this point the refuelling takes place.

Operation Plum Duff failures

To gain intelligence ahead of Operation Mikado, a recce mission – codename Plum Duff – took place on the night of 17/18 May.

A team of SAS troopers were dropped into the sea near the Falklands and ships were there to collect them.

These troopers were then transhipped to one of the aircraft carriers, and from there they boarded a Sea King helicopter which took them into the Argentinian mainland to drop them off about 10 miles northwest of Rio Grande Airfield. 

Watch: Falklands veteran recalls sinking of HMS Sheffield.

Feeding back intelligence that would help in Operation Mikado was the aim of the recce mission – information about the number of troops at Rio Grande airfield, the weather and whether the runway was lit.

The Sea King was supposed to drop the troopers close to the airport, but terrible fog forced them to abandon the mission and reroute to Chile.

Former Hercules pilot Mr Burgoyne said: "By the time they got to the area it was fog bound, there were lights reported in the area and they took the decision to abort and fly west towards Chile." 

After getting over the border and landing, the recce team got out and decided to march east a considerable distance to see what they could find at the target area.

However, they found themselves in Patagonia in the austral winter in the middle of a blizzard and only lasted three days due to food shortages and equipment issues.

They eventually aborted the mission and were recovered back to the UK.

The helicopter crew, in the meantime, planned to land the helicopter in a lake in Chile and sink it.

They tried that but it floated, so they set it on fire and headed into the hills around Punta Arenas, staying concealed for three days and nights.

Watch: The Falklands conflict as it happened.

Mission aborted 

Headlines were made as "politically it was quite embarrassing that a task force helicopter had arrived in Chile unannounced", Mr Burgoyne added.

After getting little information back from Op Plum Duff relating to their target he "was absolutely astonished" that the word back from the UK via the SAS was for Operation Mikado to proceed as planned. 

He suspected "the aeroplanes would be destroyed on the runway" if they got that far. 

"As far as I was aware they only had one missile left. The risk and reward didn't make any sense at all to me," he said.

Operation Mikado was eventually abandoned to the relief of all involved. 

On 30 May, Argentina used its last air-launched Exocet missile against the carrier HMS Invincible. 

It did not cause any damage to the carrier, after failing to find a target.

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