The Falkland Islands

During the Falklands
A team from Argentina
arrived in Spain
with the intent
of blowing up the Rock
News Story

From "Panorama" 10th October 1983

How Argentina tried to blow up the Rock
By Simon Winchester, Robin Morgan and Isobel Hilton
The Sunday Times

AT THE height of the Falklands war, a well-equipped Argentine underwater sabotage team slipped secretly into Spain and made its way towards Gibraltar. Its aim was to blow up vital ammunition and fuel dump in the colony, and sink any British warships in the harbour.

But according to senior British military and intelligence officials, the Spanish authorities arrested the team of four men in a small town some five miles from the border. And in a hitherto undisclosed gesture of goodwill to the British Government, Madrid ordered the four to be deported back to Buenos Aires.

The decision caused a serious diplomatic rift between Spain and the then military junta in Argentina, at a time when Spain was ostensibly giving moral support to the Buenos Aires regime. The planned raid on the strategically vital colony would have caused havoc to the Falkland task force supply lines. Many lives among the 34,000 strong civilian and military population of the Rock would have been lost.

A prime target was the fuel dump which task force ships used to top up en route for the South Atlantic. Huge storage tanks carved out of the rock lie just a few yards off Williams Way - one of 32 mile of road and tunnel driven through the mountain by miners during the Second World War. They are guarded normally by just one man.

The more heavily-guarded Admiralty magazine, connected by one of those tunnels to the dockyard, contains a vast stockpile of ammunition including missiles, torpedoes and naval nuclear weapons. That stockpile became a vital source during the conflict as arsenals in Britain emptied fast. Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships called in at Gibraltar almost daily to take ammunition and fuel on board. It was there, early in April, that the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror received the Mark Eight torpedoes that sank the Argentinian cruiser, General Belgrano.

Secondary targets identified by the team of saboteurs were any warships in Gibraltar, and the airfield, which was an important bridge between Britain and Ascension Island. RAF Hercules planes flew daily to refuel and pick up supplies to be dropped by parachute to the task force.

Details of the raid have come from a variety of highly-placed sources. They include a senior army officer in another British colony who was ordered to increase security when the planned raid on Gibraltar was discovered. A high-ranking officer with access to intelligence information of the affair independently confirmed to us the Argentinian team's plans.

Members of the intelligence community itself have given us further information. The Foreign Office. however, says it knows nothing of the incident.

But according to our sources in London, and others in Buenos Aires, the team of four civilian acting under the control of the Argentine Navy, arrived at Madrid's Barajas airport early last May. Their mission was to purchase arms, limpet mines, plastic explosives and under-water swimming gear - all freely available off the shelf from arms dealer's in Spain. Then they were to make their way south to the border town of La Lineá.

They were to penetrate the colony's defences - preferably by swimming the one mile from the La Lineá docks to the Gibraltar dockyard - and attack the oil storage depot, the Admiralty magazine, shipping, including the Gibraltar guardship, the frigate HMS Ariadne, which was known to be regularly bcrthed in the dock.

But the four were intercepted by the Spanish authorities, probably the army, in the town of San Roque. According to British sources, the four men were fully equipped for their expedition, and were stripped of arms and equipment that included the limpet mines and high explosives.

They were detained for a few days and then, despite protests from Buenos Aires, were deported back to the Argentine capital.

It is clear that British signal intelligence became aware of the arrival of the team almost as soon as the men disembarked from their scheduled Aerolineas Argcntinas flight at Madrid. Messages were flashed from London both to the governor of Gibraltar, General William Jackson, and to the governors and commanders-in-chief of. other overseas military bases thought vulnerable to attack.

Precautions had already been taken in Gibraltar, largely because the colonial authorities had been warned - ironically, in the circumstances - of a possible Spanish attack aimed at recovering the peninsula during the confusion of the Falklands operations. General Jackson had arranged for day and night guards by men of the then Gibraltar garrison - the 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment - and for naval "anti-swimmer" teams to be on constant alert. Patrol boats operated by the RAF Regiment were also on duty.

After the emergency message about the arrival of the Argentine sabotage team, "every inch" of the Rock was placed under guard, a military source said.

There was considerable confidence that the colony could be defended against a Spanish attack and equal assurance that, as the same officer put it, "we would have fished any saboteurs out of the water before they could get within sniffing distance of a ship."

In other colonies and overseas army bases - particularly Cyprus and Hong Kong - the news of the team's arrival in Spain triggered a series of security operations. Officers in Hong Kong were briefed secret-ly, within hours of the detection of the team's arrival in Madrid, by the local representative of the Joint Services Intelligence Staff For the next two weeks all available manpower was put on the lookout for possible arrivals from Argentina.

"It would have been quite simple for them to have come in here while our backs were turned," commented one Hong Kong staff officer. "But after the attempt in Spain we made sure we were well battened down."

Because of a reluctance by the intelligence community to comment on the incident some aspects remain a mystery.

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