Tagged: FalklandIslands

The Battle for Wireless Ridge

The British 3rd Commando Brigade “yomped” across East Falkland Island and successfully assaulted and occupied the five hill masses that surrounded Port Stanley to the west. The 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (3 Para) seized Mt Langdon with some difficulty, but was fixed by accurate Argentine artillery fire and could not continue on to seize its eastern most spur, Wireless Ridge, whose occupation would render Argentine defenses on Mt Tumbledown untenable, and isolate Port Stanley from the north. The task to seize Wireless Ridge was given to 2 Para, who was fifteen kilometers away on the slopes of Mt Kent as the brigade reserve.

On the evening of 13 June 1982, 2 Para yomped the 15 km to its assault positions north of Wireless Ridge. 2 Para’s new commander, Lt-Col David Chaudler who was recently flown in from Britain (!) and replaced the former commander killed at Goose Green, vowed that the battalion would not attack without adequate fire support again. So in support, 2 Para was allocated a generous allotment: two batteries of 105mm tube artillery, 3 Para’s mortars, two Scimitar tanks (skinny), two Scorpion light tanks (stubby… you know what I am talking about… The cards, man, the cards) from the Blues and Royals, and the 4.5 in deck gun of HMS Ambuscade (One of my favorite words. We need to get the term “ambuscade” into doctrine).

Just after midnight, 2 Para assaulted on line after a diversionary attack on Mt Tumbledown by the Scots Guards, and a short but vicious preparatory bombardment on the dug in Argentine positions. D Co would actually assault Wireless Ridge, while other companies seized the small hillocks to the north. The assault on Wireless Ridge was tactically polar opposite from Goose Green. Argentine resistance was systematically rooted out by superior firepower, by the light tanks, artillery, mortars and machine guns, upon contact. The Argentinian soldiers of the 7th Infantry Regiment usually broke before they were engaged in close combat with 2 Para infantry. There were four notable exceptions.

The first was not by 7th Inf Regt soldiers, but by a platoons worth of troopers from the Argentinian 2nd Airborne Regiment on their way to Mt Longdon, who counterattacked west directly into D Co as it assaulted east. D Co fought them off over the next several hours. The second exception was a dismounted counterattack by the crews of an armored car squadron (read “troop” or “company”), which was annihilated by heavy machine guns and the Scorpions and Scimitars. The third attack by the Argentinians was by a bypassed 7th Infantry Regiment platoon who struck the flank platoon of D Co. The Argentinian platoon leader was furious after hearing his friend was killed, and rallied his men to counterattack. The surprised defenders were led by a brand new lieutenant fresh from school. The Argentinians nearly overran their adversaries, but were brought under intense and accurate fire support by the British platoon commander, who had to drop down to the fire support net in the confusion and coordinate his own support. D Co (the main effort) didn’t have a forward observation officer (?), and the other FOO’s were prioritizing their missions. The young platoon commander just asserted himself into the net, and probably saved D Co a very bad morning.

The fourth and final Argentine counterattack came as the sun came up. 200 Wireless Ridge survivors and staff officers were rallied by the 10th Brigade operations officer and formed a hasty defense on the west side of Port Stanley. Since about 4 am, the remaining Argentine artillery fired on Wireless Ridge. As dawn broke about six, 50 members of the ad hoc defense, led by the 7th Inf Regt executive officer and regimental chaplain, assaulted the ridge with fixed bayonets under cover of the bombardment. The Paras were initially flabbergasted at the lines of Argentinian infantry singing as they advanced, but they were eventually beaten back with great losses.

The failure of the impromptu Argentinian dawn assault broke the Argentine defenses and the Argentinian infantry to the south and west on Mt Tumbledown routed and fled back to Port Stanley. That evening the Argentinian commander in the Falkland Islands, with no further help from the mainland, recognized the futility of the situation and surrendered. The British reoccupied the South Sandwich Islands, the last Argentinian conquest in the South Atlantic on 20 June, and both sides declared an end to the hostilities.

The Battle of Goose Green

The British landings on East Falkland Island from the San Carlos Water went well despite Argentine air attacks that mauled the defending task force, and sunk a destroyer, a converted container ship, and two frigates. Unfortunately, the Battle of San Carlos was perceived as a defeat for the British in the international media. The Thatcher government needed a victory on land to compensate for the losses at sea.

The Argentine 12th Infantry Regiment outside of the towns of Goose Green and Darwin, just south of the landing site, became the target. The Argentine position at Goose Green was initially intended to be isolated and bypassed during the move on Port Stanley. However, the British convinced themselves that the Argentinians there could potentially threaten the landing site when the British began their attack east toward the capital. Despite the media woes, both the Thatcher government in London and the British command in the Falklands balked at the idea to attack, but they were finally won over by the commander of the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) Lt Col Herbert “H” Jones’ determination. During a period of conflicting orders on the 26th, Jones was heard saying in the command post, “I’ve been waiting twenty years for this and now some f*****g Marine has cancelled it.” Eventually, 2 Para was ordered to attack.

Aerial reconnaissance was unavailable and the details of the Argentine defense were provided by an infantry squad sent ahead of the main body and an SAS observation post to the east. They did an admirable job of identifying the main Argentine defenses and minefields in front of Goose Green and the small town of Darwin, but completely missed mutually supporting perpendicular trenchlines on the east side of the Darwin Hill saddle, and the two reserve companies around the airfield. Since their air transport and most of their vehicle transport was at the bottom of the San Carlos Water, 2 Para conducted a “yomp” or approach march of 13 miles with full kit across the cold, wet, and barren island to their assault positions, on the evening of the 27th. To make matters worse, the Argentinians were expecting them because the BBC announced to the world about the impending attack the night before.

In the early morning hours of 28 May 1982, the 690 paratroopers of 2 Para assaulted over the open terrain at the dug in positions of the 1100 Argentinian defenders of the reinforced 12th Infantry Regiment and supporting air force personnel manning anti-aircraft guns. The tough defense of Lt Col Italo Piaggi’s soldiers caused significant delays in the attack. Most British troops were pinned down with accurate direct and indirect fire, and many trenches had to be stormed and cleared at bayonet point. Lt Col Jones and his command group eventually moved forward to rally the men. He was killed early in the battle by fire from the unknown trenches on the east side of Darwin Hill while he personally assaulted a trench line. His command fell to his 2IC, Major Chris Creeble. It was through his calm leadership, and the leadership of several other junior officers and NCOs, that kept the attack from breaking down in the face of determined Argentine resistance. Had the Argentinians counterattacked in strength at any point in the battle, the British would probably have been defeated in detail.

By the early afternoon, 2 Para cleared Darwin and Darwin Hill of defenders, but the attack culminated in front of the town of Goose Green. Inside the town, were 600 Argentinian soldiers and 200 British civilians, and 2 Para was exhausted and disorganized. Via Argentinian POWs, Creeble asked for their surrender to spare the civilians in the town the inevitable airstrikes and artillery bombardment. LtCol Piaggi, with nowhere to withdraw to, agreed.

2 Para’s assault at Goose Green inflicted 190 Argentine casualties, and captured over 900 for the cost of 18 killed and 65 wounded. The Battle of Goose Green is the textbook example of a successful hasty dismounted infantry attack by a battalion sized force against a numerically superior enemy force in a deliberate defense.

The Battle of San Carlos

In April 1982, after a failure of American and United Nations’ shuttle diplomacy with Argentina, Great Britain invoked the 1386 Treaty of Windsor with Portugal (the longest lasting mutual defense treaty in existence) for use of airbases in the Azores for a naval task force to assemble at Ascension Island. The dispersed ships of the task force, centered on the two small Harrier jump jet aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes, and the landing ships carrying the reinforced 3 Commando Brigade, were enroute to recapture the Falkland Islands after an Argentine invasion in early April 1982. They arrived at San Carlos Water, a fjord off of the Falklands Sound, the strait splitting the two major Falkland Islands, on 21 May 1982.
 
By the late Cold War, the Royal Navy was a far cry from the overwhelming force that safeguarded the British Empire for three centuries. With extensive defense expenditure cuts, it devolved into a niche capability anti-submarine and anti-missile force to prevent the penetration of the Greenland-Iceland-Faeroes Gap in the North Atlantic. There the primary threats were Soviet submarines, and missiles launched from long range Soviet bombers, and their capabilities reflected that. They expected to be able to spot incoming air threats on radar at long range and destroy them before they could fire. The Royal Navy was not prepared for the low tech/close in onslaught brought on by the Argentine air force.
 
After the cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine, the Argentine Navy withdrew to its ports for the remainder of the conflict. The task of preventing the Royal Navy from landing troops on the Falkland Islands, or failing that, forcing the Royal Navy to withdraw and isolate the landings, fell to the Argentine Air Force. The meagre Argentine response of 81 mm mortars and 105 mm recoilless rifle fire to the initial landings on the morning of 21 May gave way to four days of constant, intense, and effective air attacks by 90 aircraft based on mainland Argentina and ten more operating from grass strips on the islands. San Carlos Water was chosen for the initial landings specifically because the West Falkland Island masked the task force from aircraft armed with the Exocet anti-ship missile, one of which sank the patrolling HMS Sheffield on 10 May (the missile didn’t even explode, but its unexpended fuel caused fires which could not be contained). However, the reverse was also true: the island masked the incoming aircraft from British radar and anti aircraft missiles. Furthermore, with the decommissioning of their last full sized carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, just three years before, the British lacked any ability for combat air patrol or airborne early warning. The V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) Harriers of the smaller carriers would prove to be adept and agile air superiority fighters against the Argentinians when armed with upgraded Sidewinder missiles, but they lacked the range and stamina to continuously remain on station. The British position in San Carlos Water protected the fleet from the Argentine’s niche capability, the Exocet missile, but played directly into the hands of their adversary’s main ship killing weapon, one that would not be out of place in the Second World War forty years before – the 1000 lb iron bomb.
 
From 21-25 May 1982, the Battle of San Carlos more closely resembled the sea battles off Crete or Okinawa against the Germans and Japanese respectively than anything thought of by NATO planners against the Soviets. The Argentinian pilots approached under cover of the West Falkland Island, and at the last moment popped over the hills, release their dumb i.e. unguided, bombs at the ships sitting in the Water, and climbed desperately away to avoid being destroyed by the shrapnel from their own attacks. The British anti-aircraft missiles were completely useless in San Carlos Water, and the British were forced expose their primary anti-aircraft defense ships outside as decoys to take the brunt of the attacks. This dispersed the Argentine attacks, but did little for ships still in the Water with Argentine planes descending upon them. Only ancient Bofors and Oerlikion anti aircraft guns taken out of storage by forward thinking junior officers and hastily bolted on to the ships provided any defense when the Harriers were otherwise occupied. There are numerous accounts of landing ships whose only air defense were crewmen or soldiers firing small arms at the low flying Argentine planes while they waited to unload. San Carlos Water quickly became known as “Bomb Alley”.
 
On 21 May, the frigate HMS Ardent was struck by several bombs whose fires sank the ship that night; many of the crew only survived because another ship, the HMS Yarmouth, courageously pulled alongside to allow the survivors to jump on board. The HMS Antelope was the next victim to the iron bombs, though in her case one failed to explode, at least until an EOD team accidentally detonated it. The resulting fire cooked off the magazine which broke the back of the ship. On the 25th, the HMS Coventry succumbed to a bomb “skipped” across the water like a rock. The same day, the MV Atlantic Conveyer, a converted container ship carrying the invasion force’s complement of Chinook helicopters and other necessary logistical material sank after being struck by an Exocet missile fired at point blank range. This loss proved devastating to the invasion force, and another such, or the sinking of one of the over worked Harrier carriers, would have doomed the invasion. Virtually all of the ships at the Battle of San Carlos took damage, that more weren’t sunk was due almost as much to faulty Argentine fuses as anything the British did. 13 bombs struck British ships without exploding. At an interview just after the battle, a high ranking retired RAF commentator said, “Six better fuses and we would have lost”.
 
By the 25th, the operations tempo proved too much for the Air Force. Moreover, the Argentinians lost 22 planes and the pilots were beginning to openly complain that they were receiving no assistance from the other services. The air attacks diminished considerably once it was obvious the British troops were firmly lodged on East Falkland Island.
 
However, the Commandos and the attached Paras would have a long way to walk before they reached their objective, the capital at Port Stanley.