Operation Algeciras

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Map of the Bay of Gibraltar.

Operation Algeciras was a foiled Argentine plan to sabotage a Royal Navy warship in Gibraltar during the Falklands War. The Argentine assumption was that if the British military felt vulnerable in Europe, they would decide to keep some vessels in European waters rather than send them to the Falklands.

A commando team observed British naval traffic in the area from Spain during 1982, waiting to attack a target of opportunity when ordered, using frogmen and Italian limpet mines.

The plan was to launch divers from Algeciras, have them swim across the bay, to Gibraltar, under cover of darkness, attach the mines to a British naval ship and swim back to Algeciras. The timed detonators would cause the mines to explode after the divers had time to safely swim back across the bay. The plan was foiled when the Spanish police became suspicious of their behaviour and arrested them before any attack could be mounted.

Planning and participants[edit]

The operation was conceived, ordered and directly managed by Admiral Jorge Anaya, who at the time, was a member of the governing Galtieri junta and head of the Argentine Navy in 1982. The plan was top secret and not shared with other members of the government. Anaya summoned to his office Admiral Eduardo Morris Girling, who was responsible for the Naval Intelligence Service, and explained to him the convenience of hitting the Royal Navy in Europe. Girling would be the one who would make the plan and select the participants but Anaya remained in charge of the operation throughout.

Striking in the United Kingdom was considered at first but it was thought that the commandos would have difficulty remaining unnoticed and Spain was chosen because the commandos could more easily pass unnoticed as tourists.

The leader of the operation was Héctor Rosales, a spy and former naval officer. He was in charge but would not participate in the actual placing of the mines which was left to the experts.

Three former members of the Peronist guerrilla Montoneros were convinced to participate in spite of the earlier repression of the Montoneros by the military.

The leader of the commandos was Máximo Nicoletti, a diver and expert in underwater explosives. His father served in the Italian navy's underwater demolition team during the Second World War and now owned a diving business. In the early '70s Nicoletti had joined the Montoneros and engaged in urban actions labelled terrorist by the military junta. On 1 November 1974 Nicoletti placed a remote-controlled bomb under the yacht of the police chief of the Argentine Federal Police, Alberto Villar, who was killed together with his wife. On 22 September 1975, while the destroyer ARA Santísima Trinidad was still under construction in Buenos Aires, Nicoletti placed an explosive charge under the hull which caused it to sink.

Later in the decade, Nicoletti was arrested by the infamous Grupo de Tareas 33/2 of the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) but escaped serious punishment by cooperating with the authorities.

Soon, due to his cooperation and expertise, he managed to get himself appointed to carry out a similar submarine attack against a Chilean ship because tensions between Chile and Argentina were high due to the Beagle Channel dispute. This attack was not carried out in the end because the disagreement between Chile and Argentina was finally resolved peacefully. Nicoletti was then sent to Venezuela as a spy but he was discovered and had to return to Argentina. Shortly after he settled in Miami, but when he heard of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands he immediately got in touch with the Argentinian government in case his services were needed and he was instructed to return to Buenos Aires.

The other two commandos, both also ex-Montoneros, were Antonio Nelson Latorre, nicknamed "Diego, el Pelado" (or "el Pelado Diego") and another man who went by "Marciano" and who has remained anonymous to this day. Both had participated with Nicoletti in earlier sabotage plans.

In the event of capture, Argentina would deny all knowledge. The agents were to say they were Argentine patriots acting on their own. They had orders not to do anything which could involve or embarrass Spain, to sink a British naval vessel and to get express approval from Anaya before carrying out any attack.

When planning the operation in Argentina it was decided that acquiring or manufacturing explosives in Spain would prove too difficult and so two explosive mines with timed detonators would be shipped to Spain via diplomatic pouch and would be delivered to the commando group in Spain. Italian limpet mines were acquired for this purpose and shipped to Spain in diplomatic pouch as planned.

Situation in Spain at the time[edit]

At that time the political climate in Spain was unstable with the government of Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo having political difficulties on many fronts, including with the military who distrusted him. The trials for those responsible for the military coup attempt of 23-F a year earlier were concluding and this further raised tensions. The Basque group ETA were very active and police checkpoints on roads were common.

The upcoming 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain meant the police were very alert to any suspicious or terrorist activity. The police requested that everybody remain vigilant, and that people should report anything unusual, especially within the travel industry.

Execution[edit]

The commandos were issued counterfeit Argentine passports under false names and marked with false earlier entry stamps to Spain. This was done so the Argentine government could deny any involvement in case the commandos were discovered and the passports were made by another ex-montonero, Victor Basterra.[1]

On 24 April Nicoletti and Latorre left Buenos Aires for Paris where Latorre's passport raised the suspicions of French authorities but they were finally allowed to continue their onward travel by air to Málaga.[2] They carried the closed-circuit, military scuba gear in their luggage and passed customs without raising suspicion. They carried plenty of cash in US dollars and paid for everything in cash.

They both checked in to a hotel in Estepona and spent some days surveying the area after which they travelled to Madrid in a rented car to meet Rosales and Marciano. They then rented another two cars in Madrid and went to the office of the Argentine Naval Attaché to pick up the mines. While in Spain the commando communicated daily by telephone with the Naval Attaché of the Argentine Embassy in Madrid, who would, in turn, communicate with his superiors in Buenos Aires.

The four-member commando group, travelling in three cars, travelled south using main roads. The mines were carried in a bag in the trunk of a car; their shape and appearance would make it obvious that they were explosives if anyone saw them. While cover stories could be plausibly invented for the specialised military scuba gear, there was no way to explain the explosives, so they had to be careful not to be stopped at police checkpoints.

They travelled to the south of Spain separately, with Nicoletti going ahead as a scout and the other two cars ten minutes apart each. They had no way to communicate between cars except visually. Nicoletti did come up to a police block and turned around to warn his accomplices, but even though he saw them and signalled the first car behind him did not see him and continued until it too saw the police checkpoint and turned around. They all met again, their U-turns having gone unnoticed. They then decided to continue south using minor routes.

When they were near Algeciras they checked separately into three different hotels, and changed hotels often over the next few weeks. They paid their bills weekly, and paid for everything in cash, which eventually raised suspicions and led to their arrest. They kept the explosives in one of the cars and used only the other two for transport.

For the first few days they surveyed Algeciras bay in search of the best place to enter the water and to observe the maritime traffic in and out of Gibraltar. There was not as much surveillance in Gibraltar as they had expected: two sentry posts were unmanned, and only one navy vessel patrolled the area around the port.

They bought an inflatable raft to cross part of the bay, and a telescope and fishing tackle to give cover to their activities. The plan was to enter the water at about 6 PM, swim across, plant the mines at about midnight, swim back, exit at about 5 AM; the mines would explode shortly after.

They would then drive north to Barcelona, cross into France, then Italy, and fly back to Argentina from there.

The first opportunity came when a British minesweeper entered Gibraltar but Anaya considered the target not to be worth the effort. A few days later Nicoletti suggested sinking a large oil tanker with non-British flag, as it would block the port of Gibraltar for a long time, but Anaya refused permission because an oil spill and environmental disaster could provoke outrage in Spain, especially if it damaged the tourism industry, and it could affect other Mediterranean countries.

For weeks the commandos continued their routine of changing hotels and renewing their car rental. During this time the British task force was already sailing south towards the Falklands.

Finally a high-value target, the frigate HMS Ariadne, arrived at Gibraltar on May 2, but Anaya again refused permission, this time because the President of Peru, Fernando Belaúnde, had just produced a comprehensive peace plan and Anaya believed this might produce a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but which could be undermined by a successful attack in Gibraltar.

Later that day on 2 May, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the British attack submarine HMS Conqueror.

The following day on 3 May, Nicoletti anticipated that permission would now be given by Anaya and, because hostilities had broken out, he asked if the team could claim to be acting for the Argentine military if they were caught. This was refused but they were ordered to execute the plan.

Failure[edit]

The following day Nicoletti slept late, as he usually did because the plan was to act at night, while Latorre and Rosales went to the car rental agency to extend the rental for another week. The owner of the rental business, Manuel Rojas, had become suspicious on previous encounters. He noticed that the man had keys with him for cars rented in other car rental businesses, that he always paid in cash using American dollars and that he never came in exactly when he said he would but rather would come in earlier or later.

Because of this, he had notified the police, who asked him to call them next time the man came by and to try to keep him there until they arrived. He called the police and the men were arrested. The police then went to arrest the other two men and they found Nicoletti and Marciano still asleep. The police initially thought they had a gang of common criminals but, in spite of the orders to the contrary, Nicoletti soon declared that they were Argentine agents.

The minister of the interior, Juan José Rosón, instructed Málaga police chief Miguel Catalán to keep the arrests secret. The Spanish government decided to expel the four men without penalty or prosecution and did not want any publicity.

The police were told to take the arrested men to Málaga. Nicoletti says once the policemen realised they were not common criminals their attitude changed and became more favourable. The police let Nicoletti handle the explosives as he had training the police did not have. Then Nicoletti invited them to lunch, so the police convoy, still carrying the explosives, stopped at a roadside restaurant. Then they went to pick up some clothes at a dry cleaners and finally headed for the Málaga police headquarters.

By coincidence, the president of the government Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, was campaigning in Málaga and ordered that the men be quietly taken to Madrid in an aeroplane which had been chartered for the campaign. The men were not interrogated or put on trial. They were quietly flown to Madrid and on to the Canary Islands under police custody, and finally were put on a flight to Buenos Aires without custody. They were returned under the same passports, now known to be false. Spain had recently joined NATO and Sotelo preferred not to create tensions with the UK or with Argentina; quietly returning the men to Argentina seemed the best course.

The operation was handled entirely by the Spanish Police and the Ministry of the Interior; the CESID (Spanish military intelligence agency) was not informed or involved. The operation was kept secret by all and was not openly talked about or disclosed by the participants until many years later. The Spanish police were ordered to destroy all associated records. At the last minute, when the men were at the airport, the police chief realised they had not taken the men's ID information and called to order that photos of the men be taken. At the airport the police charged with taking the photos thought it would look awkward to take ID photos in public and so a friendly, group photo of the commandos with the police guarding them was taken. This photo has not been found.

Aftermath[edit]

An article published by The Sunday Times in October 1983 titled How Argentina tried to blow up the Rock exposes the basic plot but contains many errors because little was known about the operation at that time.

Argentine writer Juan Luis Gallardo wrote a novel based on this operation, Operación Algeciras.

In 2003 a documentary was made where Anaya, Nicoletti and other participants were interviewed. Nigel West, a British writer who specialises in covert operations, told the documentary team that Britain had known about the plot because of telephone-taps of conversations between Argentina's embassy in Madrid and Buenos Aires and had informed Madrid, but this may not be the case.[3]

External links[edit]

References[edit]