When Argentina invaded the remote Falklands Islands and South Georgia in April 1982, seizing them and their 1800 inhabitants from Britain, the military junta that ruled the country thought that they had a fait accompli and that there was nothing the British could do to respond – a view that was held by many.
The attitude proved short sighted. The British formed a naval task force and launched “Operation Corporate”, an expedition to recover the islands and reassert British sovereignty. The Argentine military’s initial confidence that the mission was beyond the capabilities of Royal Navy and British Land Forces started to turn to alarm as it became apparent that a substantial force was headed into the South Atlantic to confront them.
Head of the Argentine Navy, and a member of the military junta running the country as well as the primary architect of the plan to seize the disputed islands, was Admiral Jorge Anaya. While developing the navy’s defence plans, he conceived the audacious idea of striking the Royal Navy were it least expected it – in one of its home ports.
With the British force reliant on a huge logistical tail to support the operation, the reasoning was that by demonstrating the weakness of their defences the British would be forced to draw critically short resources back to ensure the protection of their facilities and throw the whole counter invasion into doubt.
With the idea in mind the Argentines began to look around for where to strike. Security in Britain was considered to be too tight, so another plan formed – using divers armed with limpet mines the Argentines would sink or damage a Royal Naval warship at Gibraltar. And they had just the man in mind.
In 1974 a limpet mine killed the Argentine Federal Police chief while he was on his yacht. Less than a year later the brand new Type 42 destroyer, the Santisima Trinidad, which was still under construction, was sabotaged when a charge detonated under her hull as she was fitting out. The damage delayed the ships completion for a year.
The attacks were carried out by a terrorist group known as the Montoneros, a left wing group who opposed the military government. The diver who conducted the attacks was Máximo Nicoletti, a diver whose father had served in the famed Italian naval commandoes during the Second World War. Apparently the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.
At some point after these attacks Nicoletti had been captured by the military and, considering the vicious nature of the junta’s attitude to its enemies, had rapidly come around to the idea that he would be better off helping his former enemies. As a result he assisted in various covert operations before being tasked with leading the proposed attack.
In true “Dirty Dozen” style his team was made up of two other former Montoneros who had helped in the previous terror attacks and, like Nicoletti, had evidently switched sides once captured. The intention by the Argentines was that should the team be captured then they could be written off and explained to the world as patriots on their own mission. The overall commander was an Argentine agent and former naval officer, Héctor Rosales, who would not take part in the attack and was the liaison with the Argentine military.
The commando team flew to Spain on 24 April. The limpet mines, an Italian model, were shipped to Madrid in the diplomatic bag and handed over by the Argentine naval attaché. The team then used different vehicles to move them and their equipment, which included rebreathers and the 75 kgs of mines, to the coastal city of Algeciras just across the bay from Gibraltar.
The trip was fraught. Spain was the host for the Soccer World Cup that year and, suffering from its own terrorist situation in the shape of the Basque ETA group, security was tight. Police checkpoints were on many roads and the Argentine team had to scout ahead as they transported the explosives through the country.
Reaching Algeciras, the team purchased a rubber dingy and fishing gear. Using this as their alibi they proceeded to reconnoitre the bay and lay their plan as they awaited orders to attack.
The Argentine high command were not ready to give permission at first, still hopeful that a diplomatic solution could be reached. But on 2 May the British submarine Conqueror sank the Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano, resulting in the death of 323 Argentine sailors.
With this action it was apparent that conflict was inevitable and on 3 May permission was given for the commandoes to attack the first viable target. This arrived on 10 May in the shape of the Leander-class frigate HMS Ariadne.
The plan was for the team to paddle out into the bay around 6 PM the next night as though fishing, swim out to the frigate and plant the mines by midnight, then be back by 5 AM the next morning. The mines would be timed to detonate after this.
With the plan in order, the team set about ensuring their escape route was ready with two of them returning to the car hire company they were using and paying cash to renew their contract, as they had done on previous occasions. Though it will likely never be confirmed for sure, it was this action that is attributed to the failure of the mission.
A local bank had been robbed by a gang composed of Argentines and Uruguayans not long before and the police had asked businesses to keep an eye out for the culprits. The car hire owner, suspicious of the team, called the police who arrested them.* This in turn lead to the rapid arrest of Nicoletti and the other team member, who were sleeping at their hotel in preparation of the long night swim they had been expecting to undertake.
Nicoletti quickly told the Spanish authorities about their identities and mission, giving them a real quandary. As a newly inducted member of NATO, Spain was now a British ally. However, not wishing to antagonise the Argentines, the Spanish decided that discretion was the best course and rapidly deported the team without comment.
It’ll will never really be known whether the operation, had it succeeded, could have made any difference to the eventual outcome of the conflict. On 21 May the British landed their troops on the Falklands and on 14 June the Argentine garrison surrendered.
But what is without doubt is that the whole British operation was conducted on a shoestring. The loss of another ship by the Royal Navy, only a week after the sinking of HMS Sheffield and so close to home, would certainly have been a major shock.
Operation Algeciras may have failed, but it remains a great case study for innovative thinking in special operations, as well as an example how the simplest things can cause a plan to fail.
*It should be noted that other sources indicate that British Intelligence were monitoring the Argentines communications and tipped off the Spanish police. The truth of the matter will likely always be debatable.