The Argentine invasion of the Falklands Islands on 02 April 1982 was very personal to the Royal Marines. Not only because they put up the initial fighting defence but because the Corps had provided security detachments for the islands since 1965. Referred to as Naval Party 8901 each 30 man detachment received per-deployment training and usually served one year on the Islands. They were accommodated in a small barracks at Moody Brook west of Port Stanley, the main town and residence of the Island’s Governor. At the time of the invasion all Royal Marines knew where the islands actually were. Most people in the UK and a good proportion of the UK armed forces had absolutely no idea.

It is perhaps difficult for military historians to reflect on the simple fact that actions in war can be confusing and unclear for those involved. Major occurrences might have little impact on you; yet other incidents that might never be broadly referred to might have a profound effect on individuals. Nobody see’s everything. Individual experiences can be undoubtedly shared, perhaps exactly by others around you but experiences are still very personal. As a Royal Marine at the time, this was my view of the Falkland’s campaign and that of my younger brother Adrian; in particular his experiences during the battle for Mount Harriet in June 1982.

We both held the rank of Marine in Plymouth based commando units. I was a 40 Commando RM, (pronounced forty); Adrian was in 42 Commando RM, (pronounced four-two).

Throughout the narrative I have tried to make accurate references to the actions I witnessed by naming warships, units, sub units, aircraft types, casualty numbers and sometimes individuals. During the campaign it was often days or weeks after an event that I learned who and or what I saw. When we returned to the UK in July 1982 we went on immediate leave and my girlfriend and I went to the South of France. I had bought one of the first books about the campaign written by two journalists. My girlfriend questioned why I would need to buy a book, because I was there. I explained that whilst indeed I was there and involved I only saw events from my perspective; I needed a broader view, I wanted to find out what happened.

At the end of this blog I will insert some footnotes and references pertaining to what I discovered after the conflict. Hopefully some of those features will help to answer some of the questions that still circulate to this day.

The immediate events leading up to the 1982 Falkland’s Campaign started on the islands of South Georgia in the South Atlantic when Argentinian scrap metal merchants landed apparently legitimately in Leith to dismantle an old whaling station on 19 March 1982. There were British Antarctic Survey personnel in Grytviken, just 20 miles away who apparently expected them. However, amongst the scrap dealers there were Argentine military personnel who were there to carry out military surveys ahead of a proposed plan by Argentina’s ruling military Junta to invade the entire island group.

This compromised and threatened South Georgia and the established and populated Falkland Islands. It was this embedded military group who allegedly raised an Argentine flag which stirred up a focus. The UK were learning through intelligence that something was afoot so HMS Endurance, the RN survey vessel which was patrolling in the region was dispatched to investigate. On board was a 22 man Royal Marine detachment led by Lt Keith Mills RM.

Signals were being passed from the UK to key personnel in the region which apart from HMS Endurance and various other patrolling warships included The Falkland Islands Governor Rex Hunt. They were simply advised that Argentina might be planning something significant.

Indeed they were. The Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentine special forces on 01 April 1982 followed by the main body on 02 April 1982. The resident Royal Marines defence force, Naval Party 8901 81/82 was in the process of handing over and being relieved by the incoming detachment, NP8901 82/83. This totalled 68 officers and other ranks. In addition there were 11 Royal Naval personnel and 23 members of the Falkland Islands Defence Force. They would be facing an initial force of over 600 Argentine marines some of whom would be in armoured vehicles. Thousands of other troops were following. Major Norman, the incumbent OC on being advised that a full scale Argentine amphibious invasion was about to take place took command and initially got his marines to vacate their barracks at Moody Brook, taking with them all weapons, ammunition and equipment stocks.

He then positioned a proportion of his force at strategic locations to observe the Argentine fleet and amphibious forces and the greater number of his men at and close to Government House in Port Stanley. Once the Argentine forces landed the Royal Marines engaged them in fierce fire fights despite the overwhelming invasion force. The defending Royal Marines suffered no casualties. The official casualty list on the Argentine side was one dead and six wounded. The Royal Marines dispute this, claiming a lot more Argentines were likely killed and wounded.

The island’s Governor, Rex Hunt eventually ordered his troops to stop fighting in order to safeguard the civilian population, the fragile island infrastructure and the entire defence force being wiped out. The following day Lt Mills and his detachment fought an action against an Argentine force that had invaded South Georgia. His men badly damaged a naval corvette, disabled two helicopters and caused casualties. Mills was eventually surrounded with no hope of escape. On that basis he surrendered his force who had suffered just one wounded.

The Argentines repatriated all of the Royal Marines involved in these actions back to the UK unconcerned that these men would be a vital source of intelligence. Within days they would be re-integrated amongst the Royal Marines units making up the task force that Argentina seemingly did not anticipate would return.

I was 26 and a member of Recce, (Reconnaissance), Troop, 40 Commando Group, Royal Marines, based in Seaton Barracks, Plymouth. One of our troop, Steve Black, had not long departed us to join NP8901 82/83, destined to arrive there at the end of March to take over. He had been married to a Falkland islander but was now divorced but he had children there. He was keen to return for that reason. Now after arriving and almost immediately getting into a battle with the invaders he was back home in the UK. His ex-wife and children were prisoners on the islands.

My younger brother Adrian had not long finished his training at CTCRM, The Commando Training Centre, Royal Marines in Devon. He had then been drafted to his first choice, 42 Commando, also Plymouth based in Bickleigh Barracks just north of the city. Initially he was allocated to M Company just weeks before the invasion. As soon as it occurred M Coy were earmarked for an operation to retake the cold expanse of South Georgia. 42 Cdo was an artic trained unit but Adrian, fresh in, had not yet completed the specialist arctic warfare training in Norway. He was taken out and joined J (Juliet), Coy a new composite rifle company which in fact a lot of returned NP8901 ranks joined.

Four of the repatriated NP8901 ranks joined us in 40, they had all served in Recce Troops before. One of them was Steve Black. He arrived ahead of the other three and casually walked into the Troop office dressed in civvies carrying a small grip. All his uniform and personal kit had been taken off him on the islands. He had returned to the UK, bypassed all the debriefing, welfare protocols and draft processing and got a train to Plymouth. We all made a great fuss of him, the boss reintegrated him, signed the appropriate paperwork; he completed a unit joining routine and drew fresh kit. There was no outside knowledge and certainly no media clamour. The newspapers and TV stations were struggling to understand what was happening. The story of these quiet heroes who just days before were in a desperate fight was remarkable.

I had joined Recce Troop after passing their internal selection course in June 1981. Recce Troops received para pay whilst in role and as I was already parachute trained I would qualify. However it was seen appropriate that I should go back to RAF Brize Norton for a two week refresher which would include a night jump. I happily joined a course half way through completion, most of the candidates being young Para’s fresh out of training and P Company. They were a great bunch of lads. They had completed their ground training and balloon jumps at RAF Hullavington. The RAF instructors had me going out during the next phase of aircraft jumps twice as a number one. I think they saw me as a leading father figure. I often wondered if any of those young paratroopers I jumped with served down south in 2 or 3 Para. I suspect some did.

I had come from one of 40 Cdo’s three fighting companies. I had made some great friends in A, (Alpha) Coy, one in particular was Nick Fowler-Tutt. We had sourced a magnificent newly decorated attic studio apartment in Manamead, Plymouth not far from Seaton Barracks. Nick had joined Mortar Troop, also in Support Company. When we informed our pretty young landlady that we would be going away for a while she couldn’t take it in. She threw her arms around Nick and burst into tears.

In the week following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands the appointed units in 3 Commando Brigade made preparation for war. In Seaton Barracks we were busy. Single ranks living ashore were ordered to move back into camp. Nobody could make sense of that so we gave it a good ignoring. Keen to profit or procure extra kit marines were scouring the departments. One such facility that in normal circumstances would be quiet was the Equipment Repairers Workshop. Their small facility and counter were descended upon. I breezed in one morning but found myself behind a horde of ranks trying to obtain US style water bottle carriers, designer ammo pouches, helmet covers and DPM camouflage material. It was like the floor of a trading house. There was a single marine behind the counter trying to keep some order. He looked both surprised and slightly angered by the onslaught. I turned and walked away; I would try later, I didn’t want to add to his stress.

AT SEA

After a hectic week of preparation 40 and 42 Commando along with 3 Para boarded the 45,000 – ton requisitioned P&O liner Canberra in Southampton. Other units within 3 Commando Brigade mounted up in other vessels from other parts of the country. We departed from Southampton on the evening of 09 April, Good Friday. It was somewhat surreal, huge crowds saw us off, there were car headlights flashing all the way down Southampton Water and from Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight when we reached The Solent. That evening was very relaxed on board, we ate, talked, drank and pondered the future. Into the Easter weekend the weather was calm and sunny. We were left to settle in and sort ourselves out. The training programmes would start on the Monday. It was a big logistical operation to allocate training time and space to the embarked force. Meanwhile there were still tradesman on board fitting the ship for the operation, the biggest process being the helicopter flight decks. It was amazing to see it happening.

Once the onboard training programmes started we were running and speed marching around the decks. We completed circuits, weapon training, first aid, aircraft recognition. We paid great attention to signals and intelligence briefs and had discussion periods. Our six, four man sections were finalised, there had to be some adjustment with the addition of our four NP8901 colleagues joining us. My section, 61A comprised the Section Commander, Cpl Chris Scofield, a wiry, blunt, sharp witted Mancunian. He was a sniper and carried a scoped L42. Mne James Trolland, another slightly built but hard character was a Glaswegian. Jock carried our GPMG and he’d acquired a 9mm Browning pistol. Our NP 8901 addition was Mne Marcus Bennett. Benny was a young good humoured lad, rather laconic in some respects with a good eye for detail. He carried an SLR. Then myself, I was the section RO and carried the PRC 320 HF radio along with the antenna kit, the large rechargeable battery and the wind charger. Two of the others carried batteries. As well as my own personal kit I carried an SLR. In addition to the six field sections there was an HQ section which included the boss. He was under the direct command of the unit C.O. who personally directed him. We were the C.O.’s eyes and ears on the ground and he was going to use us for just that.

I was spending most evenings with Adrian my brother; I had resorted to sleeping in a vacant bunk in his two man cabin in the 42 Cdo accommodation area. Into the tropics, the weather got warmer. We came alongside in Freetown, Sierra Leone for fuel and stores. We were moored next to a BP refinery for just part of a day. Locals in their wooden canoes appeared along with an expensive looking power boat crewed by a couple of young men who we surmised were oil company employees. With them were two young ladies, scantily attired in the heat. One of the chaps hailed up at the hundreds of soldiers lining the rails, wishing us good luck while his mate steering their craft was beaming and waving. To their horror they were met with a torrent of abuse followed by demands directed at their rather attractive girlfriends to remove their clothing. It was both shocking and hilarious to witness. Poor buggers, they were so naïve.

We arrived at Ascension Island in mid Atlantic on 20 April. Mail was arriving on board which was a huge boost to morale but in addition to that school children back home had been encouraged to write to Task Force personnel and their letters were distributed at random amongst us. I replied to three of them. It was a great gesture but sadly I doubt if such a thing could ever happen now.

The units took it in turn to go ashore for training, speed marches, landing craft drills, live firing on the vast expanse of ranges and a chance to really stretch out. Of course we were able to enjoy the beaches and swim and boy did I take advantage of that. The amount of ships at anchor and aircraft movements brought home the serious intention of the task force. Ascension was the holding point. We concluded that if we stepped off from here and headed south the full operation was on. The Royal Navy, air ops and SF teams were already down there, we weren’t going to move blind, the path was being cleared.

We hadn’t been there many days when early one morning Nick Fowler-Tutt came into my cabin to inform me that he’d just got a message that his father had suddenly died back home, (he was only in his early fifties). Nick was up together but he was going home on a military flight later that day. It was a dreadful shock, further compounded by the circumstances we were in.

A few nights later in my own cabin I woke up soaking wet. It was totally dark but I could feel my tee-shirt and bedding was drenched; something must have leaked on me I thought. I put on the bed light, I was covered in blood. For an instant I panicked, everybody else was sound asleep. I checked myself and then realised I was bleeding from my nose. I eased myself out of my bunk, took off the pillow case as a swab, grabbed a towel and some spare clothing and crept outside and along the passageway to the showers. The next morning I had to report sick. Whilst I’d managed to stop myself from bleeding to death the duty Doc got me in a dentist chair and cauterised the inside of my nose. I spent the next two days being laughed at with a dressing up my nose and taped to my face. I’ve never suffered with anything like it since. The Doc had just shrugged, he wasn’t concerned. Air temperature, atmospherics, who knows.

The Royal Marines Commando Forces band had also embarked in Canberra in Southampton, they were an important and integral part of the operation. Their war role was that of stretcher bearers and medics. They were thrown into the training programme like the rest of us. Rumour had it that they were specifically instructed not to bring their musical instruments and band equipment as the senior commanders considered it inappropriate and unnecessary. The band allegedly smuggled instruments into chacons marked as medical supplies. It’s a great story but instruments they brought indeed and they provided memorable entertainment. Apart from the bars and expansive lounge areas there was a cinema. I distinctly remember one evening watching the 1977 war film ‘Cross of Iron’. This gritty Sam Peckinpah feature was very realistic and I recall a scene where entrenched German troops were being accurately mortared by Russians. It was very graphic. I was sat at the back and in front of me were scores of soldiers, Marines or Paras, I don’t recall. I had the awful feeling that some of us might experience such events for real. Strange because I had no idea at the time. Of course it would indeed happen for real. My brother who wasn’t with me on this occasion would be subjected to defensive artillery fire just weeks later.

Diplomacy was failing and we were being kept completely up to date. On 02 May the Argentine cruiser, ARA Belgrano was attacked and sunk south of the Falkland Islands by the submarine, HMS Conqueror. Belgrano, a former US warship had survived Pearl Harbour as USS Phoenix, she had been sold to Argentina in 1951. We appreciated the gravity of the attack when it was learned that 323 lives had been lost. There was no celebration from what I remember. The rumbling of controversy started early, Belgrano’s position when she was attacked provoked debate but not amongst the personnel in the task force. The Argentines declared that the attack,

‘Was a treacherous act of armed aggression’. Ironically the ship’s Captain, Hector Bonzo, considered the attack to be appropriate to the situation and further added that his orders were simply to attack British Task Force ships.

Just two days later on 04 May the Argentine Navy retaliated and we lost the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield. She was attacked by French built Super Etendard jets firing AM39 Exocet missiles from low level. The ship was severely damaged, intense fires broke out and 20 of the ship’s company were lost. Sheffield was initially abandoned and then taken in tow, the objective was to get her recovered to South Georgia. She was taking on water and sank on 10 May. HMS Sheffield was the first British warship to sink as a result of military action since WW2. This was a shock and it confirmed that the Argentine military had a capability.

I was to learn many years later that a childhood friend and close neighbour, Paul Schillemore was a Petty Officer on board and he had suffered injuries. I had no idea at the time. After the age of 11 in 1966 we had gone to separate schools and despite being neighbours we had seen very little of each other. Paul continued his career in the Royal Navy and was later commissioned.

On the 06 May a further element of the Task Force departed from Ascension Island and headed for the cold South Atlantic. This included us in Canberra. The mood after Belgrano and Sheffield had now changed dramatically, we were really on a war footing. On the 09 May the frigate HMS Ardent came alongside Canberra and provided an impressive fire power demonstration for the embarked force. As we steamed south the weather became increasingly cooler and the sea state changed. It became too hazardous to run and speed march around the slippery decks because of the constant swell and increasing rainfall. Physical training was confined to circuit training.

The bars throughout the ship were becoming less frequented during the evenings now. I do distinctly remember sitting in the Neptune bar with my brother one night. The weather was worsening and people were vacating back to their cabins. Eventually we were the only two sitting there still deep in conversation. This bar location was in the aft of the ship, which was rolling and pitching to an increasing extent. At one stage the stern rose out of the water underneath us and we could hear the props thrashing and vibrating out of where they belonged in the sea. Glasses and bottles fell off the tables smashing onto the floor. It was utterly surreal and we nervously burst out laughing, both of us struggling to comprehend the total potential horror of what we were approaching. Eventually we retreated back to the cabin stone cold sober but steadying ourselves like a pair of drunks along the passageways.

HMS Fearless

On 19 May 1982 40 Commando RM, (approx 650 men), were cross-decked by 4 Assault Sqn LCU’s, (Landing Craft Utility), from Canberra to their mother assault ship, the LPD HMS Fearless. 3 Para were cross decked to her sister ship HMS Intrepid by the same manner. 42 Cdo remained on board in reserve. 3 Commando Brigade had to be dispersed amongst the ships capable of landing them effectively on the islands. Once decided this took place in daylight in the middle of the South Atlantic during a relatively calm sea state. It was a window of opportunity but nevertheless highly dangerous. Apart from the physical danger of moving nearly 2,000 men from an opening in a ships side into pitching landing craft there was the perceived threat of submarines. Anybody even just watching such a venture and unaccustomed to the requirements of the military would have been horrified. My brother stood against a rail on an upper deck on Canberra to see me off; he was all alone. I put on a steel helmet so he could distinguish me amongst all the troops in the LCU I had boarded. We gave a final wave as we moved away towards HMS Fearless probably about a kilometre away. Eventually I couldn’t distinguish Adrian as distance veiled him. I just had one dread, that I would survive and he wouldn’t.

Troops along with their personal equipment and weapons were brought on board via the after loading dock where the LCU’s entered. Once on board we were accommodated around the ship in whatever space could be found. The 4 x LCU’s in their dry berth positions in the drained tank deck were utilised. Recce Troop was allocated the LCU F4, (Foxtrot Four), along with a CVRT light tank and her crew from the Blues and Royals. F4 was commanded by C/Sgt Brian Johnson and his crew of marines and RN NCO’s and ratings had laid coconut matting in the vessels tank deck to make it a little more comfortable for us. We were very grateful. For the next 30 hours we made our final preparations, ate, slept, read, wrote and discussed. The sea state was horrendous, the ship was on defences watches, the ships company were permanently in anti-flash, carrying immersion suits and life jackets. Passageways were mostly empty, the weather decks were out of bounds, the ship pitched and rolled continually, there was an eerie doom laden dim lit atmosphere. I was dreading and fearing the worse. I dragged myself away that evening for an hour and found a small machine space. I sat down and totally focused on my signal instructions, determined to get everything in order and at hand. I went back to F4 and passed a small huddle of ratings in an equipment bay watching and laughing at a Benny Hill video. In the Main Galley the chefs were providing action messing; sandwich food, snacks, soup and hot drinks to be taken back to personnel stations. I was there to pick up rations for my section.

A young Naval Lieutenant wandered into the Main Galley. Initially he spoke up in a manner you might expect an officer would engage in to get attention from people around him. I thought he was about to give a briefing. Then it suddenly and shockingly became obvious that something was very wrong, he began ranting in front of scores of ratings and marines. Proclaiming we would all be killed in this dangerous, ludicrous venture he was calmy approached and led away by two Naval Regulators who had clearly been dispatched to find him. It was a disturbing and upsetting scene The outburst from this officer really angered me and I have never forgotten it. Junior ranks didn’t have the time to try and understand his broken mental state, no doubt he was suitably looked after but well away from the rest of us and rightly so. I left the galley quite shaken by it. I later discovered that there were some very senior officers on board crucial to the planned assault and operation. They were made aware of what had occurred. I had gone through my own fears and trepidation but alone and not involving others. My greatest fear was letting down the troop and my section. I wasn’t being a hero, I just had to get on with it.

We received news that a Sea King helicopter had suffered a major malfunction and had ditched whilst cross decking SAS troopers from HMS Hermes to HMS Intrepid. A total of 22 men were lost of which 18 were SAS, the units biggest single loss since WW2. There were 7 survivors. It seemed inconceivable and ludicrous.

In the late hours of the 20th May the sea state had calmed considerably and we made preparations to be embarked in the LCU’s for the beach assault at San Carlos. We packed our kit in Recce Troop and moved out of F4 and joined other elements of Support Coy. Then we actually boarded on another LCU for the landing, (I don’t remember which one) . Issued with ammunition, link, grenades and 66 mm LAW’s we were ready to emerge from the LPD’s dock. There was a problem, the pumps which flooded the dock failed. After some banging, crashing and shouting water suddenly came into the dock. The ships Captain had to make a quick decision so he gave the order to open the dock doors to allow the sea in. It was a risk because it was difficult to control the flow. It worked despite some damage, (that we were unaware of). We floated out under a starlight sky the LCU diesel engines softly growling in the still crisp air. We were in Falkland Sound near the mouth of San Carlos Water. As we moved away from the ship that remained in complete darkness we could hear the distant crump of NGS – naval gunfire support, (HMS Ardent), shelling the main Argentine reserve at Darwin to the south. This was in support of an aggressive SAS diversionary raid.

Making the run in towards the assault beaches at San Carlos we could clearly see the rugged silhouette of the east island coastline. There was not a hint of a light anywhere. I was on the port side alongside Tony Callan, we both light cigarettes. I think all of us were trying to remain orientated, mind mapping, recalling the models and maps we’d studied. In Recce Troop we knew our objectives were a long way inland so knowing where we were from the onset was a natural urge. We came up close to a stationary, hove to County-class destroyer on her port side; this was HMS Antrim, one could hear the faint rumble of her turbines and the familiar hum of generators. She displayed no lights, her ship’s company closed up at action stations, this grey mass of warship gave out a rather sinister portrayal. She assaulted the relative calm when she suddenly opened fire towards the shoreline with her twin 4.5 inch guns. Our entire complement in the LCU well deck crouched as one when she fired the first round. We continued on; she continued to fire, her shells bursting ashore, sometimes a dirty grey occasionally fiery white. Empty shell casings clattered onto the destroyer’s deck, ejected from her automatic turret. We naturally thought the anticipated unopposed landing brief was wrong, we now expected the worse. Unbeknown to us a 60 strong Argentine unit was at Port San Carlos, one of the landing objectives. 19 of them were manning an OP on a promontory on our port side called Fanning Head at the entrance to San Carlos water. They were watching our approach. We were unaware that they were indeed firing two 30mm recoilless guns and two 81mm mortars at the invasion fleet.

A heavily armed SBS/SAS unit on board HMS Antrim were flown ashore in a Wessex helicopter to deal with them. That accounted for the red tracer arcing inshore and the clatter of small arms fire sometime later amongst the 4.5 inch bursts.

SAN CARLOS LANDINGS

The actual landing on the beaches at San Carlos were uneventful. Intrepid’s LCU’s were carrying 2 Para. A single Scorpion or Scimitar light tank of B Squadron the Blues and Royals was positioned at the front of the eight LCU’s and they were nearly asphyxiating us when they started their Jaguar engines up offshore. The Fanning Head fire fight continued. When the ramps came down on Blue Beach there was a brief hesitation, nobody gave the customary order, ‘Down ramp, out troops’, we just started to move. As the tanks rumbled forward we filed past the armour. The tanks were actually temporarily stranded on the beach in our sector, desperately looking for a draw and a route through. Recce Troop congregated and crouched at the top of the shingle beach where we were met by an SBS guide, (who was already there). His opening greeting was a simple,

‘All right guys?’.

He advised us that the settlement was clear but there was no knowing what was immediately inland despite the area being relatively quiet for some days. When I knelt down at the top of the beach I was next to a gorse bush. We were home from home, this was like an extension of Woodbury Common, Dartmoor and Sennybridge.

Our boss, Lieutenant Allan Thompson gave his final summary orders and wished us good luck. We made a final equipment and weapons check. We had to move though the settlement quickly in our four man sections and climb the high feature in front of us in darkness. We were just beyond the settlement buildings crossing small fenced pastures when a single shot rang out. We immediately knelt, weapons ready. There was a shout, then some cursing. Somebody had had an ND, (negligent discharge), in one of the landing craft. FFS, we carried on. Looking to my left I could still see red tracer arcing towards Fanning Head. We started the climb up the Verde Mountain. Once daylight broke, we would seek cover.

Much has been written about the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment soldiers yomping and tabbing across the Falkland Islands, carrying huge loads and still fighting. Those terms were not created during the Falklands Campaign. To us this was situation normal. Just weeks before we had taken part in an exercise on Dartmoor doing exactly this. This was our job, there was nothing strange about it. I have only ever soldiered as a Royal Marine; I really don’t know any different. All Royal Marines and Paratroopers would say the same.

At the top of the feature, it started to get light, and we went to ground. There was very little wind, and the air was relatively warm as the sun appeared. It was a cloudless sky, and the views were stunning. The distances you can see in the pollution free southern hemisphere is startling. Warships and logistic vessels were at anchor in San Carlos water in front and beneath us. Helicopters clattered back and forth with underslung loads. Small craft manoeuvred between ship to ship and shore.

The troop was spread out in our sections amongst the rocks and tussock grass features. We were not going to move on towards our final objectives until dark, it was too dangerous. Never under estimate your enemy; we had to assume they thought and acted like us. We had to expect they had OP’s up on these heights. We could stumble upon them and be suddenly involved in a firefight. I set up myself up in a comfortable position and got a wet on, I was grateful to be dry. The quiet was interrupted by a helicopter approaching us with an underslung load. No more than a hundred feet above us it was hauling a Rapier post. It continued south along the top of the feature for about 1500 metres and then landed. It was barely visible. That marked a problem for us because it was close to our proposed route. I was concerned about the crew, how well briefed were they, did they assume that we were now well beyond them. One nervous sentry could assume we were enemy. We remained where we were. It was difficult to anticipate what was going to happen next.

CRIPPA’S RUN

A couple of hours passed, the atmosphere was even clearer now. Suddenly there was an explosion on the far shoreline four kilometres away. Then the rattle and thump of gunfire, an assortment of type and calibre; I couldn’t see anything. The faint sound of a jet engine, a small jet with distinctive tip tanks coming from right to left came into view, rolling hard to his right, away from my position to escape over a feature where the explosion was. His exposed underside silhouette gave away his type, an MB-339. Gunfire had erupted from ship and shore as attempts were made to track and kill this aircraft.

Much later I was to learn that this was ‘Crippa’s Run’. Lieutenant Owen Guillermo Crippa was a 27 year old Argentine CANA Aviator. Tasked to complete a recce of San Carlos water he had flown his small navy jet from Port Stanley into the might of the Task Force in his Aermacchi MB-339. His wingman’s aircraft had gone unserviceable, so he had elected to continue alone. He approached Falkland Sound from the north and after noting the task force ships and dispositions, he flew down San Carlos water attacking the frigate HMS Argonaut with cannon and rockets, causing damage and casualties. Running a gauntlet of fire from all directions he survived. After escaping this onslaught which initially was slow to initiate, (first sighting of enemy, is it, isn’t it syndrome), he actually flew back in a wide arc to get a confirmatory view before returning to Port Stanley. The intelligence he secured prompted the air attacks that would follow.

I had at the time not realised that I had watched this young pilot win the Argentine Heroic Valour in Combat Cross, their equivalent of a VC. It’s odd to think but he certainly earned it.

The main attacks followed; jets screamed up the sound, the rattle of machine guns, the crump of bomb explosions and the thump of 20 mm Oerlikon and 40 mm Bofor’s guns. I could see ships being straddled by bombs exploding in the water, it was like watching a huge screened war film, it was difficult to absorb. One point I do recall was the difficulty actually seeing fast jets; your hear them, you see what they do but they are as described, fast.

HMS ARDENT

Later in the afternoon positioned in Grantham Sound east of us was HMS Ardent. From my elevated position on Verde Mountain I could see her very clearly despite the ship being 12 kilometres away. Initially, when her time came it was difficult to appreciate she was being attacked, the distance did deceive, I couldn’t see any aircraft. I watched through binoculars, eventually it became clear, isolated and alone she was repeatedly attacked by fast jets; plumes of water engulfed the frigate as explosives and cannon fire erupted in the sea around her. Eventually bombs detonated inside her; blasted sections of twisted superstructure wheeled and glinted in the sunlight in an obscene choreography as it rose into the air, black smoke and flame belched from her interior. I watched with a mixture of awe and dread as the ship manoeuvred hard, returning fire in a desperate attempt to fight off her attackers. Time passed, overwhelmed, disabled and on fire she was eventually beaten. I don’t remember seeing her being abandoned before she sunk the next day. She lost 22 of her ship’s company. I have ever since felt a sense of guilt, sitting comfortably amongst those rocks witnessing her demise. I would later learn that a good many other troops also saw it.

That first night ashore the troop got into a harbour position in a depression on the Verde Mountain. It was a very quiet night. We didn’t know the full extent of what had occurred that day, the losses, the damage. We all set off in stages in the early hours, still in darkness and giving the Rapier boys a wide berth.

By the next day we were all in a ring of mountain top OP, (observation post), positions well to the east and south east, watching the approaches to San Carlos. All five sections were between 17-20 km out from San Carlos. We had moved cautiously into concealed positions. The views were staggeringly clear. Setting up our PRC 320 HF radios we called in with radio checks. Transmissions were kept to a minimum, there was no chatter between sections or our HQ set up in San Carlos and as much as possible on low power to avoid detection. Whilst we had seen a lot of activity and actions on the first day we had no idea about casualties, indeed there were actions we hadn’t seen. I knew Adrian had been on Canberra but I had no idea how he was and what had happened. Canberra had been out of our line of sight.

The Battle for San Carlos continued. The Argentine Navy Air Arm, CANA and their Air Force, the FAA were their preferred assets at this stage. One of their attack routes came from the north and flew down the valley running north south to our front. Always A4 Skyhawks on this attack route they would hug the valley side and pass directly in front and sometimes below our OP at times no more than 50-100 metres away. As well as the noise they were so close you could make out the garish coloured flight helmets their pilots favoured. I had never anticipated being in an OP and being so close to an enemy in such circumstances. We could have put up a wall of gunfire for them to fly into but our task was to observe and report. Such an action would have compromised us. Their flight time from our position to San Carlos was just under 90 secs. We could hear the attacks going in and the response.

The battle continued until 25 May, the Douglas A4 Skyhawks continued to use their approach route in front of us. No doubt there were other avenues they were using. I was now half expecting them to wave as they flew by. The weather was changeable, dry and bright, wet, windy, sometimes we were in cloud on the heights. Through the dark hours we had a two on two off routine. Two ranks sleeping through in a bivvy position and two alternating a watch routine. This kept movement to a minimum and it was easier to stay dry and warm. One was always fully kitted, boots on, webbing next to you, weapon alongside. We knew there were SAS/SBS fighting and recce patrols well to the east and south of us. In support of them was the RM M&AW Cadre. We were OP’s in depth. Nevertheless we started out expecting the Argentines to go on a full offensive, land sea and air. Their naval surface fleet had withdrawn from the fight after Belgrano. Their navy aviators however were in, alongside the FAA.

Their ground troops and all their available assets to transport them just sat in defence, no move. We were expecting to observe the onset of helicopter assaults, determined infantry coming over the clear skyline to our front just as we were ultimately planning to do. We even had a worst case scenario withdrawal plan whereupon our section would move back and to a flank to one of the other OP positions which was situated in a natural, heavy rock formation which we called the ‘Citadel’. From here we considered that eight of us could prosecute a good fight. We realised there would be little chance of a helo extraction if the hordes appeared as we were so far out. Defensive fire plans for our artillery had already been submitted, that was just routine.

2 PARA – DARWIN AND GOOSE GREEN

It was probably on 27 May we received information in coded form or veiled speech that we should expect some activity to develop. We had to figure it out ourselves. During that day there was the rumbling of artillery and or NGS explosions in the direction of Darwin and Goose Green. We already knew there was an Argentine garrison there which was just 20 kilometres to the south. Our conclusion was correct and not too difficult from our perspective, 2 Para had been tasked to carry out an attack. The unit were on the Sussex Mountains just 10 km to our west. The noise to the south faded during the day but then in the dark early hours of 28 May it started again. The darkness revealed faint flashes on the horizon.

The radio net was silent. Had I tuned our set into the BBC of course we would have got all the information before 2 Para’s advance to contact. That despicable occurrence along with journalists remarking in their reports on the amount of bombs that struck ships that didn’t detonate because of likely fusing errors wasn’t good for our morale. I remember sitting in the OP that night watching and listening to the battle of Darwin and Goose Green. Once we could hear the faint rattle of GPMG fire we knew the paras were engaged in the fight. As they advanced down the isthmus the firing and explosions grew fainter but it continued into the light hours.

We must have received something later confirming their success but we had no idea of their casualties or the fact that they had lost their C.O. and a Royal Marine helicopter pilot. Bless them all, I thought about those young paras I’d jumped with at BZN. They had been supported by 8 (Alma) Battery from 29 Commando Royal Artillery. I had completed a 1981 winter period in Norway attached to 8 Batt from 40 Cdo before I joined Recce Troop. It was a great experience. They were good soldiers and learning how to operate their 105mm guns was outstanding. I’m sure they did their utmost for 2 Para.

On 29 May I trailed a wire antenna to improve our comms which was failing intermittently. Tuning through I picked up ‘Radio Peking’. An English speaking oriental newscaster was broadcasting global news. He informed his listeners that the victorious Argentine forces on the Falkland Islands, (he didn’t say Malvinas), were in the process of driving the imperialist British military invaders back into the sea. The Argentine forces were apparently enjoying a great deal of success.

That night I was off watch and in the sleeping bivvy. I woke up to the sound of huge explosions which in a slumbering daze I was convinced were next to us. Extracting myself, the quiet voice of Chris Schofield halted my attempt.

‘Go back to sleep, that was fucking miles away’.

We later learned it was the FAA attempting night bombing raids over San Carlos with their Canberra bombers. They were dropping 1000Ib free fall bombs but their guidance systems were not very accurate.

By 30 May, Recce Troop had been in the field occupying OP’s since the landing. We got notice that we were going to be extracted by helo. This had its risks of course especially as we were on an A4 attack route but the raids over San Carlos had died down. Nevertheless it would be in daylight and once they arrived it was going to be a brisk departure. Our four man section was returned in two lifts by a Scout helicopter. I was partnered with Jock Trolland because we had the GPMG. We were packed and ready to move when the first craft came into earshot. They were spot on with their navigation, we didn’t need to pull smoke or lay out a panel it was just a wave and they put down on a small level feature. Jock and me were straight in with all our kit; with the engine running it was hard to hear the Observers brief as he turned to greet us.

The route back would be low and fast and there was a positive Pucara threat so eyes out. The pilot glanced for our thumbs up, we were sat on the deck and not strapped in. He lifted and in the downwash which was blowing through the cabin, the Observers map flew out of the rear open side. I immediately took off my webbing and gestured I would recover it; the pilot lowered the Scout to about two feet above the deck and I jumped out. The heavy map protected by Fablon was lodged between some rocks. I grabbed it and Jock hauled me back in. There were more thumbs up and away we went on a low contour hugging flight back to the San Carlos Bridgehead. It was exhilarating and the views were extraordinary. We overflew evidence of a crashed and destroyed jet amongst the rocky outcrops as we approached the settlement. San Carlos was an array of trenches, intricate, deep and with overhead cover. There were vehicles, stacked stores and mud everywhere. We were accommodated on the top floor of the settlement manager’s house, the biggest building there. The rooms were bare floored and set aside for visiting sheep shearers. It was luxury.

After two days in the settlement and a change of diet I was suffering with diarrhoea. I saw the unit dentist who was in the role of a doctor. He administered me some Lomotil. We talked about the air raids that the settlement and base unit had suffered while we were out in the field. We had been as close to elements of the enemy as was possible but in concealed positions we had been safe from attack. It was the paradox of concealment and reconnaissance.

He recalled a raid on 27 May. As the attack ended, he was called out to a marine who had collapsed on the parapet of a trench. When he reached him, he was unconscious but there wasn’t a mark on him. He and an MA quickly pulled up his outer clothing and eventually found a very small wound in his side. They got him onto a helicopter for casevac to HMS Fearless. A small bomb fragment had entered his torso causing massive internal injuries. They couldn’t save him. It was the unit equipment repairer, Mne Steve McAndrews the very same chap who looked very perplexed that day when his repair shop was overwhelmed. I didn’t know him personally.

Colonel Malcolm Hunt, 40 Commando’s C.O. held a clear lower deck to as many ranks as could be mustered. He announced that General Moore had decided to leave 40 Cdo at San Carlos securing the BMA. His reasoning was simple. We knew the threats, we knew the ground, we were established and somewhat hardened. 5 Brigade would move through us and join the offensive east. We were somewhat confused. From what we had noticed the elements of 5 Brigade that had come ashore here, plodding along, dressed in creaking waterproofs didn’t look to pleased to be here. We were convinced, and possibly they were, their role was to take over the BMA defence. It wasn’t to be and they moved on.

THE PATROL

Three days later we were back out in the field, part helo, we were dropped short of a new OP position to the east but a little further south. We had a deep valley in front of us and a view of Mount Usborne, the highest feature on the entire Falkland islands. We were now in the first week of June. It was around midday, second day, crystal clear conditions. We all heard the distinctive 2 blade rotor thump of an Argentine UH-1H Huey helicopter. It appeared in the valley below us, about 2 km away. We were baffled. 3 and 5 Brigade were now in the process of advancing east. The Argentine forces were in defence around Port Stanley. Despite being about 18km south of San Carlos and 40 Cdo securing it, what were they thinking. Then it got worse, we spotted a four man patrol, in file, well spread out. I grabbed my binoculars, the rear man was wearing a distinctive red air panel on the back of his bergen. The Huey was overflying them then tracking in a wide arc away from us to repeat the process. They looked like they were on an non-tactical exercise practising drills. These people were not soldiering like us, they seemed completely unaware of how OP’s worked, and patrolling with a helicopter. It was like a show. Chris Schofield grabbed my radio headset and requested an artillery fire mission. After a pause, it was refused. His request must have completely confused the BMA. This dumb patrol gesture and accompanying Huey were no threat. Eventually they tracked south and with their helicopter, they disappeared. A day later we were extracted and returned to San Carlos. We never established who they were and what they were trying to establish.

Our routines would change. Our OP’s would now be closer to San Carlos. We were to establish sites on the forward slopes of the familiar Verde Mountain. Just three sections would be out at a time, we would work a rotation. There was a real concern that the enemy would try and mount an assault on the BMA. That could come as a helicopter assault from their units on West Falkland or even a parachute assault from units they apparently had on the Argentine mainland. As parachutists ourselves, viewing the rock runs and bolder strewn valleys surrounding us our simplistic view was, ‘Good luck with that’.

Colonel Malcolm Hunt, 40 Commando’s C.O. held a clear lower deck to as many ranks as could be mustered. He announced that General Moore had decided to leave 40 Cdo at San Carlos securing the BMA. We knew the threats, the ground, we were established and hardened to the environment and he trusted us to put up a fierce defence if we were attacked. 5 Brigade would move through us and join the offensive east. We were somewhat confused. We were expecting to join 42, 45 and the two Para battalions for the final push. From what we had noticed, the elements of 5 Brigade that had come ashore here, plodding along, dressed in creaking waterproofs didn’t look to happy to be here. The air raids had now slackened. We had been convinced, and possibly they were, that their role was to take over the BMA defence. It wasn’t to be and they moved on.

GALAHAD & FOXTROT 4

By the first week of June the Falklands War was well under way. With already significant losses on both sides this particular day was one of the worst for us. Still in OP routines we didn’t immediately learn about the events on this day until probably days later. On 08 June the task force suffered the loss of the 2 LSL’s Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Bluff Cove, with 50 killed, most of whom were Welsh Guards on board Sir Galahad. The circumstances surrounding why these troops were still on board a vessel at anchor/moored in broad daylight has been long debated. From 21 May 3 Cdo Brigade knew how determined and effective the Argentine air assets were. My own brother and the rest of 42 Cdo were lucky to escape total destruction aboard Canberra on that day. Nobody was going to make that mistake again. 5 Brigade had not seen the utter ferocity of these fast jets and they paid an awful price whilst their commanders were deciding how to deploy their troops.

Later that afternoon, the HMS Fearless LCU, Foxtrot 4, our home on board Fearless just before the landings was transferring equipment for 5 Brigade in Choiseul Sound when she was attacked by Argentine A4 Skyhawk jets. The LCU was destroyed and would later sink after receiving direct hits from 500 pound bombs. C/Sgt Johnson and most of his crew were all killed.

WEST FALKLAND

It must have been after 10 June, two of our sections were given a warning order to prepare to be inserted by helicopter to West Falkland. We were one of the sections. A detailed brief followed. I really don’t remember being informed about the SAS OP that was compromised with the loss of an officer near Port Howard on 10 June. We knew however that the SAS/SBS and M&AW Cadre workload was high and Recce Troops were next in line to assist. Our two sections would act as a single patrol and establish an OP. It would be Port Howard or Fox Bay. We would have a signaller from HQ Coy with us carrying some more sophisticated comms kit. Our immediate concern; this bloke better be fit enough to operate with us. The insertion would be at night by Sea King. This was going to be potentially hazardous so we had to get it right. Argentine units at Port Howard were the closest, about 50km across Falkland Sound. As we started to sort ourselves out and having met our selected signaller, the Op was called off.

MOUNT HARRIET

I hadn’t seen my brother since he saw me off the Canberra on 19 May; he had been busy. I had no knowledge of his involvement in the battle for Mount Harriet until we met again on Canberra well after the surrender.

In the darkness of the 11/12 June he advanced to the start line for the battle of Mount Harriet with 42 Commando. Our family history was about to repeat itself. Argentine defenders were well dug in on the top of the rock strewn mountain. As the Commando moved in the darkness on the initial approach they were in the open. The enemy positions were being shelled by artillery and naval gunfire offshore. As the Commando got closer the defenders fired rocket parachute flares, Schermuly’s, into the night sky. Adrian described the tension as they got closer and closer to the base of the slopes where there were at least elements of rocky cover. Still they continued, troops and sections starting to disperse into formations. Soon the supporting artillery would stop as the unit got closer. Then it started, he described the violent crescendo of fire that descended upon them.

Just 83 years earlier on 25 November 1899 our Great Grandfather, Private Frederick Rigsby was a Royal Marine in the Naval Brigade during the Boer War in South Africa. As part of 9 Brigade he was advancing on Boer positions dug in on the summit of rocky Kopjes near Graspan in the Northern Cape. The RM formation just like 42 Cdo had advanced in the open and began to disperse in order to climb the slopes to the Boer positions which were being shelled by army and naval artillery.

As the Brigade units picked their way through the rocky outcrops in the intense heat and bright sunlight, the Boer rifleman brought down a withering fire. Frederick Rigsby was badly wounded well into the advance. A bullet penetrated his right thigh. He was eventually found by stretcher bearers having lost a lot of blood. Tended by surgeons at an aid post set up in the railway siding at Enslin he was lucky to live. The Royal Marines with 9 Brigade reached the Boer positions and overwhelmed them. The battle of Graspan was won.

Adrian recalls seeing the body of Cpl Laurence, ‘Lofty’ Watts a section commander in K Coy on Mount Harriet. He looked like he was just resting. Shot by a single pistol round, there wasn’t a visible mark on him. Once 42 Cdo had overrun and secured Mt Harriet after a hard fight they had to expect ‘defensive fire’. This is where an enemy who has withdrawn or has been overrun brings fire down with artillery and or mortars upon its own vacated positions, (already plotted), but now occupied by an enemy. The rifle company’s on Mt Harriet had to shelter amongst the enemy positions and some of their dead as indeed they were fired upon by artillery from the direction of Port Stanley. Fortunately, most of it landed in the soft peat but it was close.

Securing prisoners was a major problem, his section in one instance was heavily outnumbered by fatigued surrendering Argentine troops coming down a slope still carrying weapons at the ready. His section had to open fire cautiously amongst them in order to alert and shake them up into putting down their weapons. Some of the Argentines thought they were going to be executed. He described the incident as one of the most tense he had ever experienced.

He also remembers witnessing the destroyer HMS Glamorgan being hit by an improvised shore based Exocet missile. He recalls the surreal moment in the early hours of 12 June, the morning after the battle. Glamorgan lost 14 killed of which 13 were buried at sea.

To be continued….