Pride and Pesos (An Argentinean Injustice, By Lieutenant Colonel Mr X DSC) At 04.30 hours, on Friday, 2nd April, 1982, 150 men of the ‘Buzos Tacticos’ - Argentine Special Forces troops – landed by helicopter 3 miles south-west of the Falklands capital, Port Stanley. This top secret covert operation launched the invasion of the British-held South Atlantic islands four hundred miles from Argentina. Ten thousand Argentine troops occupied the Falklands and within days our two countries were at war. Maggie Thatcher sent a Task Force to recover the islands – and the rest, as they say, is history. Or perhaps it’s more true to say that the side which won the war, wrote the history. Because about one hundred and fifty books have been written about the war – and most of them are from a British perspective – including my own account of the covert life of a Falklands War Special Forces helicopter pilot, taking SAS and SBS troops deep behind enemy held lines – and on one occasion on a highly controversial mission to the Argentine mainland. This was promptly denied by not only the British Government – but the Argentines also claimed it never happened. They did so for different reasons. The British did not want to stir a hornet’s nest throughout South America with an admission that our troops were covertly operating on the mainland. The Argentine military junta could never admit to their own population that they had failed to protect their own motherland – which would not only rankle but be political dynamite. Much has changed down in the South Atlantic – but some things seem just the same. The Falklands and its British subjects may be richer and better defended - but the diplomatic sabres are still rattling, and bellicose demands are once more coming from Buenos Aires where the Argentine Government is demanding sovereignty over the Malvinas. Those who closely follow the events down in the South Atlantic, in 1982, could be forgiven for thinking that just about every aspect of this war, and its longer term effects, has already been exhaustively exposed, documented, analysed, codified and digested. But you would be wrong. There is one story people know very little about. A group of Argentine conscripts have been fighting to have their story told not simply in the outside word – but in Argentina itself. They claim their war against the British enemy took place on the Argentine mainland - in Patagonia, where three thousand conscripts and regulars were deployed to protect airfields and aviation fuel dumps at Rio Grande and Rio Gallegos air bases from covert sabotage operations by British Special Forces. At these air bases Argentine planes flew missions against the British Task Force often with devastating results. These conscripts allege they fought fire- fights against the SAS and SBS on Argentina’s mainland and say their war service has never been recognised because the very existence of British Special Forces on Argentine soil has been long denied and swept under the carpet. They have had no status as veterans of the Malvinas for 30 years and have been denied a veteran’s pension. As a retired Royal Marine, and a Falklands War veteran, I feel strongly that their plight deserves to be heard – not least by their own government, who are in denial still about the defeat they suffered. That SAS troops were sent to Argentina, I can personally testify to, because I flew them there. But if the Argentine Government won’t acknowledge the fact, they haven’t understood our absolute determination to defend the Falkland islanders’ right to be British. Veterans protesting all over Argentina, want their war service recognised and say seventeen Argentine servicemen were killed in Patagonia, which became a combat zone during the Falklands War, due to actual fighting with British Special Forces. In this country there is a military covenant. It may be formative, and not yet perfect, but in Argentina former conscripts enjoy no such recognition unless they served in a combat zone – Patagonia was a combat zone. There is growing evidence too. ‘The Official History of the Falklands Campaign’, makes just a passing reference to Special Forces operations in Argentina. But a few years ago Sir Robert Wade-Gery, who in 1982 was deputy Cabinet Secretary, told students at London University that the British had a number of SAS and SBS teams operating in or near southern Argentine bases, in his words - ‘wandering around all over southern Argentina’ – in some cases trying to sabotage the airfields in the south of the country’. He admitted that although we never had a disaster, we came pretty near it on one occasion. Rumours abound still that seven or eight British Special Forces were captured in Patagonia and exchanged at the end of the war for five hundred Argentine prisoners. Successive Argentine and British governments have denied this. But now the Argentine conscripts have gone public in great detail. Soldier V, was in C Company, Mechanized Infantry Regiment 24, at Rio Gallegos airbase, and claims to have been involved in three incidents. While on patrol on a beach thirty miles from the airbase on 10th May, 1982, he says he found two inflatable abandoned rubber boats, the type then used by the Special Boat Squadron when operating from submarines. Early on 18th May his position was over-flown by an enemy helicopter. His section opened fire and the helicopter was seen to fly erratically as it quickly left the area. At 8.30 in the evening of 28th May, a group of 4 men opened fire on his position from a nearby hill. In the fire- fight an Argentine warrant officer was killed. His death certificate states the cause of death as pancreatitis – which suggests a cover up. Soldier L, another 18 year old conscript in the same unit, says: ‘After the death of the Warrant Officer in the shooting, an order arrived to detain those who do not speak Spanish. One of my colleagues told me they were sent to a control point sixty kilometres from the Chilean border where all the vehicles had to be checked. Around noon a Ford 350 arrived carrying a couple who handed over their documents showing they were a married couple of Chilean nationality. Next to the right door was a man who did not speak Spanish with short blond hair. He was 1.80m tall and had a sporting physique, about 25 years old, clean-shaven. The driver claimed he was a friend yet he did not know his name. The man was arrested, and questioned. He told us that he was trying to get to the airport so he could fly to his home in Chile. Crucially, there were no entry stamps for him entering Argentina or Chile, so he was held at the police station overnight. The next day four military intelligence agents took him away. I was told later there were seven more detainees - it was even published at the time’. Soldier B, was an eighteen year old infantry conscript assigned to the Comodoro Rivadavia airbase. He says he personally was involved in a fire-fight with British troops: ‘On 22 May 22, at 02.00 hrs, we were attacked by SAS commandos within the actual perimeter of Commodoro Rivadavia's airbase. We were taken by surprise by an intense fire-fight which lasted twenty minutes. At that time there were two of us soldiers and a corporal. One of the enemy was so close he could have killed us but instead one of us got him and he died. Reinforcements arrived and we managed to capture two from a group of around eight men, but the rest escaped.’ Some time ago, soldier B contacted me to say he had been told to stop communicating with me on the ‘advice’ of Argentine military intelligence. Marine S, was then an 18 year old conscript, serving with the 1st Marine Battalion, in the Rio Grande area. At around 4 o’clock one morning, whilst on sentry duty with another marine, he was surprised by three shadowy figures approaching his position inside the perimeter of the airbase. The three were challenged and an exchange of fire followed. All three were seen to escape through the perimeter defences and disappear into the darkness. Next day a patrol from his unit was ordered to the nearby civilian hospital where, the local mayor reported, three men dressed in Argentine military uniforms, with blackened faces, had been left in the entrance to the hospital during the early hours. One was declared dead on arrival, the other two died of their wounds a short time later. Marine S and his group were redeployed to defend a radio station, fifteen kilometres from the airbase. It was the main military communications hub with the Falklands. ‘When I got behind the radio station, I heard shooting and one of my comrades shouted: “come here”. When I got to his side, he was lying on the floor with blood on his face. He was shouting at me to escape. I ran in the direction that he indicated but had to stop because I was in the minefield. I heard quiet shots making almost no noise, perhaps silencers. I was hit in my right leg. The base of one of the antennas behind me was damaged. I threw myself to the ground and they kept firing. I could see ‘H’ behind. We lifted our heads and we saw two figures in the minefield, twenty meters ahead of us. We fired and hit one of them. He got back up again. I then saw two figures on the road that leads to Maria Behety. When reinforcements arrived I said I saw men running in the minefield, they told me I was crazy, we must have been imagining it and that we should forget it in any case.' Soldier VB, was an Army conscript serving at the port of Punta Quilla, a short distance from Rio Gallegos. His role was casualty evacuation from the Falklands. He tells of an extraordinary incident in which a possible Special Forces mission was compromised one night in May 1982. The possible target was the aviation fuel storage tanks only ten miles away: ‘Enemy assault boats approached within meters of the starboard side of our hospital ship ARA Almirante Irizar. They were lit up by the lights emanating from the superstructure because it was a hospital ship, especially the big red crosses on the hull. Being lit, the rubber boats were spotted from the shore by the lookouts of a company of marines. Once past the hull of the hospital ship they encountered heavy fire. Their operation was aborted. The Almirante Irizar was practically in the firing line, and a large number of tracer rounds were hitting the bow of the ship. That night, the beaches near the ship were testament to the intensity of the fighting, boats with rigid hulls and inflatable black boats, stranded on the beach with visible damage caused by fire. The next day I witnessed the damage done to the boats’. Soldier O, was a conscript at Rio Gallegos airbase, in a forward position near the coast close to two large ranches – the estancias Loyola and El Condor. ‘We opened fire on a helicopter going from Chile into Argentina. My captain told us we had to go to the El Condor Ranch. Our soldiers were surrounding a British person dressed in civilian clothing. The prisoner was taken to what was called the hotel. There he was thrown onto a bed and tied to it. At that moment I was the only soldier left there so I was ordered to stay in the room to watch the prisoner until the next day. I was given two grenades plus the weapons I had: pistol, rifle and a bayonet. The order I was given was to fire if he tried to escape. I spent all night shouting at him and kicking the bed so he wouldn't move, to the point where I fractured my toe and ended up losing my voice from yelling. The next morning a very large helicopter came and transferred him to an unknown destination. After the war I found that they called my company a 'ghost' unit, there is no record of my company in the area or the incidents’. Soldier T, a conscript defending Rio Gallegos airbase, says: ‘Ten of our soldiers were killed on April 30 when an army helicopter was shot down in Caleta Olivia [15km east of the airbase at Comodoro Rivadavia] on a combat mission on red alert after detecting a submarine and three rubber boats on radar and sonar. As the helicopter neared the submarine and boats it exploded in the air in a ball of flame, spreading debris across a 300 metre radius. The second helicopter landed in a nearby field. On the beach was found part of the fuel tank, which had a hole in it of about 5 inches. The fuselage had collapsed inwards. He took it in his truck and told the police. The police called General Roca of the Military School and a patrol was sent on foot. When they arrived the human limbs were spread out along with small pieces of helicopter. Some pieces were on the beach, but most were in the sea. My friend, Mark, found a hand and rightly concluded that it was the company commander's, Lt. Col. Arevalo - promoted to General after his death. He became the highest ranking military man who fell in the whole conflict. His hand was recognised by the gold wedding ring. My friend, ‘M’ then decided to keep the ring and put the hand in a bag. After a while of being in the water, pulling out mangled bodies, the Military Police arrived, took my friends to the police station and left them in jail until June. After July, Marcos went to visit the widow of Arevalo, and gave her the ring and told her of his experience’. The Falklands campaign was the highest risk British throw of the military dice since the debacle of Suez in 1956. Much was at stake – sovereignty of the islands, the test of Britain’s resolve, and exposing to world scrutiny our military capability - warts and all. Furthermore the Government took a huge gamble politically and diplomatically in seeking tangible support for Special Forces operations from Chile, as Sir Robert Wade-Gery observed: ‘The Chileans were immensely supportive right through the campaign, but could never admit it publicly - they were no friends of Argentina so they were only too happy to provide bases for the SAS in the extreme South in Tierra del Fuego. The Chileans also provided the RAF with viewing positions from the crests of the Andes in Chilean territory. From these positions it was possible – electronically - to look down on every airfield in Argentina. The RAF- from their covert base in Punta Arenas - could identify every Argentine aircraft that took off. The Fleet and the Harriers in the aircraft carriers therefore received ten minutes warning of what they were about to be up against’. One of the reasons why Maggie Thatcher was so reluctant many years later to throw Pinochet to the wolves was because she reckoned she owed a huge debt of gratitude to him for the Chilean government’s support. Successive Argentine governments over the last thirty eight years have been keen to distance themselves from the actions of the military dictatorship of 1982 preferring instead the realpolitik of acceptance as civilised members of the international community. But they still have a long way to go. Following General Galtieri’s fall from power in 1982, until his death at the age of 76 in 2003, Argentine governments went out of their way to demonstrate to the world that their country was just, even when dealing with such a high profile man despised as a traitor, so in his case they went the extra mile. Shame on them all then, that the same justice has not been shown to the conscripts who served their nation in Patagonia with no less honour and courage as did the British servicemen and women who served our country when doing battle on the high seas, in the Falkland Islands and in the skies. Some time ago I sat in a country pub in Hampshire, enjoying a pint or two with the former SAS Captain who commanded the SAS team I flew into Argentina. Our chat was not confined to simply catching up, and the whys and wherefores of our operation all those years ago, but we also talked about the impact of the conflict on those who served in the Argentine forces and the plight of these former conscripts. Like me, he too was appalled by the Argentine Government’s cold indifference towards many of its former conscripts. These men are now in their late fifties; many still suffering the long term effects of the war in Patagonia – over five hundred and fifty have taken their own lives since 1982. After the intransigence of the last thirty years, it is time the Government of Argentina did the honourable thing, swallowed its pride, lifted the cloak of phoney secrecy and acknowledged that British military operations took place on its sovereign territory in 1982. Until then, misplaced pride, and Pesos will continue to bar the road to justice for these former conscripts. Is it any wonder that the people of the Falkland Islands still cherish their British citizenship so much when the alternative is the fear of being governed by a regime that to this day denies basic human rights and justice to some of the most deserving of its own people. The Government of Argentina would be better advised to sheath the sabres and put its own house in order and look after its own. They overlook, at their peril, the determination and extreme lengths that the British Government was prepared to go to in 1982 to restore the right to self-determination for the Falkland Islanders. Any future aggression on the part of Argentina would be met by no less resolve on our part than in 1982. The names of Argentine soldiers and marines, whose accounts are described here, have been disguised to protect their identities.