Article by Stephen Woodward. Edited by Lizi Trendell. Researched by Liz Goodwin.
One of the most infamous incidents of the Falklands War was undoubtedly the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano by the submarine HMS Conqueror. The sinking of a ship outside the supposed 200 nautical mile total exclusion zone, caused controversy around the world, as 321 Argentinean sailors lost their lives as a result of the British attack. Whilst the action of the British Navy against the Belgrano was seen by many as unacceptable, it pales in comparison to a top-secret plan of the Argentinean Navy that was only narrowly averted.
The commander of the Argentinean Navy in 1982, Jorge Anaya, conceived Operation Algeciras to bring the Falklands War to Europe. The original plan had been to hit targets in the United Kingdom, but it was soon realised that it would be rather hard for any Argentineans to pass unnoticed in the country. Instead they concocted an elaborate plan to attack Gibraltar.
The plan involved three commandos, who would fly to Spain, drive south from Madrid to the Spanish coast, swim across the bay of Gibraltar from the city of Algeciras wearing scuba equipment, attach limpet mines to a Royal Navy vessel in port and swim back to Spain before the charges detonated. The intended mission had potential complications. First of all the explosives had to be smuggled into Spain via the Argentinean diplomatic bag, to avoid arousing obvious suspicion by attempting to procure such devices on the ground. The Spanish political situation was incredibly unstable; Spain had suffered a coup and numerous Basque terrorist attacks in the months preceeding the operation. Also any Spanish involvement in an attack on Gibraltar would cause outcry, so the commandos were instructed not to implicate or involve the Spanish authorities in any way. The Argentinean government also issued them with false passports, instructing them to claim they were patriots acting alone, intending to deny any involvement in the attack should their operatives be caught.
Having successfully passed through Spanish customs at Malaga with their military scuba gear on April 24th, the commandos collected their Italian made mines from the Argentinean embassy in Madrid. They then drove south in a convoy of three cars with the explosives undisguised, as there was no effective way in which they could be, in the boots of the vehicles. Following a narrow escape with a police roadblock they then switched to minor roads to drive to the coast. The next few weeks the commandos checked into numerous hotels, moving residence each week and only ever paying in cash, with American Dollars. They mounted a surveillance of Gibraltar and found it near unguarded, the only security measure being a single patrol boat.
A rubber dinghy was purchased along with fishing rods, to form part of their cover, but also to convey them partway across the bay. The intention was to enter the water in the evening swim across and prepare the sabotage at night and be back by sunrise the next morning. The first target the commandos requested permission to attack was a British minesweeper, but this was declined by the Argentinean Navy, claiming it to be too small. Another chance opportunity was presented when a large civilian oil tanker sailed into port, the sinking of which would have effectively blocked Gibraltar’s harbour for a long period of time. This was yet again rejected as it would undoubtedly cause a phenomenal environmental crisis for Spain and enrage the Spanish authorities. Finally a frigate the HMS Ariadne arrived at Gibraltar on May 2nd. Admiral Anaya however refused permission again as he believed the Argentinean President was about to broker a successful peace. The same day the Belgrano was torpedoed.
The time had clearly arisen for an execution of the plan, but unfortunately for the Argentineans they met with a hitch. The commando’s instruction to only make purchases in American Dollars and then only in cash had aroused suspicion. The Spanish police, following a tip off from the owner of a car rental office concerning the suspicious men, arrested the commandos on their return. At first the police thought they had apprehended common criminals, it wasn’t until one of the commandos ignored their orders and claimed they were Argentinean operatives that they understood the magnitude of the situation.
The Spanish police opted not to make the arrests public, nor did it see fit to inform the British government (its NATO ally) of the plot. After discovering the true identity of their captives the Spanish police even dined out with them in restaurants on the commandos invitation, whilst still allowing them to handle their own explosives. Eventually the commandos were quietly escorted across Spain, firstly to Madrid, then to the Canary Islands before being allowed to leave freely and on what were known-to-be false passports on a flight to Buenos Aires.
Operation Algeciras intriguing as it is, brings events into context. Was the British decision to sink a warship on an offensive heading, outside of arbitrary exclusion radius really that outrageous? Especially considering the Argentinean government confessed, in 1994, the hostile intent of the vessel. Argentina after all attempted to conduct an act of terrorism using a neutral nation as a base, with its operatives even requesting to attack a civilian target. It just goes to prove the old saying: all is fair in love and war!
2nd April 1982 – Argentina invaded the Falklands
War killed 655 Argentinean troops and 255 British troops
Ended on 4th June 1982