The Falklands War of 1982 was a close-run conflict according to Nigel West, a historian specialising in espionage and intelligence.
His Secret War for the Falklands therefore investigates the occult – meaning hidden – history of that conflict, with an emphasis on Argentina`s attempts to acquire more Aerospatiale AM39 Exocet air-to-surface missiles (they only had five) and British efforts to prevent this as well as a failed Special Air service (SAS) raid on a Argentinean naval air base on Tierra del Fuego. Also probed is Operation Journeyman a “top secret” deployment of an anti-invasion task force to the Falkland in 1977 – when Britain suspected an attack was in the offing – as well as the UK`s apparent inability to detect a real invasion – Operation Rosario (Rosary) – some five years later.
The book is thoroughly readable and informative in its own right. But histories are often as interesting for what they don`t tell as for what they include. The crux of the book is indeed the Argentinean hunt for more air-to-surface missiles for their Dassault Super Etendard naval fighters. In May 1982 Argentina had 10 of 14 aircraft with 10 qualified pilots but just five of 15 missiles ordered.
After the sinking of the air defence destroyer HMS Sheffield, Argentina realised it possessed a potentially war-winning weapon and set out to obtain more. Unaware of the impending invasion its agent in France had agreed to a delay in delivery of the remaining weapons in favour of Saddam Hussein`s Iraq. At the time the AM39 user-group also included Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Of these Peru seemed disposed to resell to Argentina and when it asked for the accelerated delivery of an order, France procrastinated on suspicion of Peru`s motives, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher phoning President Francois Mitterrand to ensure Gallic prevarication.
Agents were also sent into the field to buy any available AM39 on the underground arms market “ostensibly for further sale to [Argentina] but actually to ensure they were diverted elsewhere at the critical moment.”
Indications were six were available at $1.3 million each. On another occasion 20-25 were available from an Arab source at $1 million each and on a further juncture 30 were available at the same cost “in a warehouse in France.” Nothing ultimately came from the efforts of the Argentinean agent Captain Carlos Corti.
Entirely absent in the tale is South Africa. It was widely reported at the time – in SA at least – that Pretoria did, or at least, wanted to, supply Argentina missiles from its stocks. Thatcher supposedly put a stop to it. At least one senior South African editor with unimpeachable credentials has recalled to the reviewer being shown an AM39 in the late 1979. Surely if these reports were true West would have included it in his narrative. The absence of any reference is noteworthy. The reviewer has long discounted the SA angle as Pretoria had cordial relations with Chile – which at the time was in a tense standoff with Buenos Aires. Further, what happened to these missiles? No pictures appear to exist and SA made no known effort to mount the MM38 on its Mirage aircraft or convert them for surface firing off the then-Minister class strike craft – where they would have been a great improvement over the Skerpioen (Israeli Gabriel II).
A criticism is that West tends to go off on tangents, engaging in lengthy back stories and asides. Most are quite interesting, if irrelevant to the Falklands War, for example arms smuggling into Northern Ireland and the existence of an independent pan-European resistance organisation called Gladio in Italy and P-26 in Switzerland. This organisation, supported by Britain`s Secret Intelligence Service was in place to set in motion sabotage and other resistance activities in the event of Soviet occupation.
As an aside, both the ex-SAS Good Hope (ARA Drummond, P31) and ex-SAS Transvaal (ARA Guerrico, P32) took part in the war. They were built for SA in France and were embargoed in 1977 on the eve of delivery when a mandatory United Nations Security Council arms embargo came into effect. Their SA crews were then sent home and the ships sold to Argentina. The Guerrico was damaged by British small arms and anti-armour rocket fire during the Argentinean seizure of South Georgia on 3 April 1982. She was afterwards dry docked for three days for repairs to the hull and armament.
The Secret War for the Falklands – The SAS, MI6, and the war Whitehall nearly lost
Little, Brown & Company